Margaret Whitton, who united all Cleveland fans beginning in 1989 against a common foe with her portrayal of Rachel Phelps, showgirl-turned-owner of the Indians club in the cinematic favorite Major League, passed away on Sunday at the age of 66 at her home in Palm Beach, Florida, after a battle with cancer.
Show business was the calling for Whitton, who worked early in her career on soap operas and on Broadway before finding supporting roles in Hollywood. Major League was not her first sports movie, as she joined Kurt Russell and the late Robin Williams in 1986’s The Best of Times. She appeared with Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger in the 1986 film 9 1/2 Weeks, flourished alongside Michael J. Fox in 1987’s The Secret of My Success, and worked with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and her future co-star James Gammon (Major League‘s Lou Brown) in Ironweed (1987) prior to her best remembered screen portrayal as Phelps.
In Major League, she serves as the Indians’ owner after the passing of her husband, Donald. She steals scenes as the movie’s antagonist, seeking to drive Cleveland attendance to a point low enough to allow her to move the team to Miami (in a bit of foreshadowing of baseball’s eventual expansion to the city with the Marlins in 1993). When the assorted mix of unproven players performs better than expected, she seeks to sabotage the team and becomes instead an additional source of inspiration for the lovable bunch of losers, who tie the hated New York Yankees for the American League East title to force a one-game playoff.
Director and writer David S. Ward did not envision her as the villain in his initial script, but more so as a driving force and motivator for the franchise that was struggling in both talent and with finances. A scene in the original production included a conversation prior to the one-game playoff (seen below) between Whitton and Gammon where she reveals that making the players and staff suffer while believing that the team would be moved and the players replaced after the season was all a ploy to get them to unite together in hatred of her to play harder.
That version of Rachel Phelps did not test well and was removed from the final version of the film.
Whitton later reprised her role as Phelps for the sequel, Major League II.
In addition to her commitment to the first two Major League movies, she appeared with the 1989 film Little Monsters and worked with Mel Gibson in the 1993 flick The Man Without a Face. Following her work in television, she returned to Broadway and became a theater director and directed a feature film in 2011.
She was a lifelong baseball fan (particularly and ironically enough, the New York Yankees) and had seats at Yankee Stadium, per a story in the book “My Casting Couch Was Too Short” by legendary casting director/producer Marion Dougherty, with Robert Roussel.
Whitton is survived by her husband of 23 years, Warren Spector, and siblings Suzy Liss, James Whitton, MaryBeth Whitton and John Whitton, according to the Palm Beach Daily News.