Sunday, April 7, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the beloved movie “Major League”. Written and directed by Rhode Islander David Ward (writer of box office hits like “The Sting” and “Sleepless in Seattle”) and featuring a star-studded cast, the movie follows efforts by Indians ownership to tank the season in order to set record-low attendance figures that would allow the widowed Rachel Phelps to move the franchise to Miami. Instead, hilarity and success ensue as the young upstart club finds itself under the guidance of manager Lou Brown and veteran catcher Jake Taylor. Today, we look back on a unique story that arose from the movie, as written by author Jonathan Knight in 2015. – BT
Picture Robert Stack in a dark overcoat meandering toward camera through a foggy alley. Over the opening chords of that tinkly theme song he speaks the following words in a low, gravelly voice that makes you think he’s passing along state secrets:
It’s a typical Tuesday night, and everybody’s settling in to watch the Indians’ latest textbook example of how not to score runs.
Just after the game begins (and the Indians strand their first runner in scoring position), venerable MLB.com reporter Jordan Bastian posts an intriguing little story. To coincide with that evening’s much-anticipated “Major League Night” at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Bastian chatted with Tribe manager Terry Francona about an enigmatic comment he made before the game.
Tito wonders aloud (with a smirk) why the Brewers aren’t honoring him that night as part of the Major League bacchanalia. “How come they didn’t ask me?” he says. “I’m in that movie.”
I read this – then re-read it – and realize immediately that I have work to do. With my new book out about the making of Major League, I’d look like a donkey if I didn’t pursue this.
Even if I was OK with looking like a donkey (which is usually the case), I have even more motivation. After all, this isn’t the first time I’d heard this little tidbit, which, until now, sounded like an urban legend – like the dead kid in Three Men and a Baby or the suicidal Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz.
Believe it or not, I first heard this Tito-in-the-movie rumor from Charlie Sheen.
As I was interviewing him for the book a little over a year before, at one point, he asked, with a disbelieving tone in his voice, “Is Tito Francona somewhere in the movie as, like, a middle infielder?”
My eyebrows raised in surprise.
“I just heard this like a month ago,” Charlie continued, “and I went, ‘That’s impossible.’”
I’m thinking that the theory was that Tito had been an extra appearing in the same shot alongside, say, Corbin Bernsen. Obviously, I knew Tito had played for the actual Indians around this time and wouldn’t have been hanging out in Milwaukee while they were filming, so that couldn’t be right.
I was categorical in my denial. No, I told Charlie Sheen, that couldn’t be true.
In retrospect, I’m somewhat comforted by his response: “Yeah, I just heard it and didn’t buy it for a second.”
But now, having read the words straight from Tito himself, I leaned forward on the couch and put my head in my hands, not unlike Rick Vaughn after realizing he’d accidentally slept with Roger Dorn’s wife.
Shit. It must be true. I misled the Wild Thing.
Like much of the world, in times of self-doubt and reflection, I turn to Twitter, where the delightful Monte the Colorman (a Twitter handle honoring, yeah, you guessed it, Harry Doyle’s sidekick in the movie) has already posted a screen shot of what he believes is Tito.
“You’ve got to look quick, man,” Francona had said. “Coming off the field one inning. I was getting the ball from the dugout and you can tell right away that it’s me if you look. It’s that quick.”
Quick indeed. It’s a transitional shot lasting not quite two seconds after Dorn throws out a Yankee to end the first inning of the playoff game.
Which seems to match Tito’s description. Without question, this is footage from an actual game at Cleveland Stadium, not a wide shot of the actors at County Stadium.
Still, details aren’t linking up.
Tito thought he was used in the movie because his jersey number was 24, the same as Dorn’s. But in the clip in question, The Player Who Would Be Tito is clearly playing first base. Dorn played third.
Back in reality, as Michael Bourn grounds into an inning-ending double play with a runner on third, I float the theory that it might have been a shot used later in the movie from the same angle of an Indians runner rounding first – inserted after Dorn gets his single just before Pedro Cerrano’s game-tying homer.
Monte sends the screen shot.
The body frame and complexion of that player doesn’t seem to match Tito’s. And doesn’t that look like a single digit on the back of the jersey? As previously indicated, Tito was 24. In the words of Harry Doyle, so much for that.
Next problem is the timing. Tito played just a half a season with the Indians, and his first game was July 5, 1988. According to the collective memories of David Ward, the director, and Chris Chesser, the producer, the Major League film crew was only at two actual Indians games. One was the Marathon Oil Night in June of ’88 at which they got the helicopter shot over the ballpark. The other was July 1, the night Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen threw out first pitches and roaming cameras got crowd shots and, presumably, a few game shots.
Tito didn’t play in either game.
Clearly, something is amiss here. I hesitate to doubt Tito – hard to argue when a dude recognizes himself in a movie – but this isn’t adding up.
Thanks to the greatest website ever created, Baseball-Reference.com, we discover that the Tribe first baseman for that July 1 game was Willie Upshaw, who wore number 20. Monte zooms in on the image, which reveals that this player – whether it’s Tito or not – clearly isn’t number 20. And Jordan Bastian insists that the frame of the player in question is Tito’s.
So perhaps this shot isn’t from July 1. Strengthening this hypothesis are the faint football yardlines you can see on the infield grass. No way the yardlines would have been there that early – the Browns’ first preseason game in 1988 wasn’t until August 6.
Which leads to the next problem. Principal photography on Major League began in Tucson on July 18. They hit Milwaukee the following week and were there for the next nine weeks. Nobody involved in the movie I talked to for the book had any memory of a second-unit crew being sent out separately from the rest of the company to capture baseball action in Cleveland or anywhere else. And even if so, it wouldn’t have been while principal photography was taking place.
Monte does a little digging and uncovers that there were only five games in which Terry Francona played first base for the Indians – just three in Cleveland. Therefore, assuming that is indeed Tito in the shot, it had to be one of those three.
Meanwhile, as Michael Bourn strikes out with a runner on third, we turn our attention to the Indians pitcher coming off the mound in the clip.
Tall, right-handed white guy, looks like he’s wearing number 40-something. I think maybe it’s Scott Bailes, then remember he’s left-handed. I settle on Jon Perlman, and, a moment later, believe we’ve solved the mystery.
July 5 – the Tuesday after the Friday-night Sheen/Berenger game – jumps out. The Indians played a twi-night doubleheader against Oakland, and Tito made his Indians debut in the second game, playing first base. Perlman came in with two out in the seventh and got Jose Canseco to line out to right.
Presumably, the clip shows The Player Who Would Be Tito and The Player Who Would Be Perlman coming off the field immediately after Canseco’s out. Tito would be lifted in the eighth for Upshaw – making this the only play of the game in which Tito and Perlman were on the field together.
That must be it. The Major League film crew must have stayed for the entire weekend and filmed the second game of the doubleheader on Tuesday night. Bastian backs up the theory, telling us that Tito mentioned he remembered it being during a doubleheader against Oakland.
Like Shaggy and Scooby, we’ve cracked the case. Time for sandwiches.
But hold on, Monte points out. You can also see The Player Who Would Be Tito rolling the baseball back to the mound as he jogs off the field. If it had been a lineout to right, how did he wind up with the baseball?
I sink back into the couch as Francisco Lindor grounds into an inning-ending double play. Adding insult to injury, I notice the other main component of the shot. The visiting team’s first base coach – number 37, crouched down with his hands on his knees by the bag – is wearing a gray uniform with black numbers. Which means these aren’t the green-and-gold Oakland Athletics.
Back to the Zapruder Film we go.
Holding up Rich Yett’s 1988 appearances to Tito’s holy trinity of games at first base, there’s a connection: Friday night, September 30, against the Boston Red Sox.
That night, Yett (wearing number 42) outdueled Roger Clemens for a 4-2 Tribe win and Tito went the distance at first base. Plus, by now the Browns were in Week 5 of the regular season and had played two home games, hence the yardlines on the field. And Monte, who, unlike the Indians, always comes through in the clutch, discovers that Boston’s first base coach in 1988 was Al Bumbry…who wore – yes indeed – number 37.
And, best of all, for the book I’d learned that principal photography had wrapped in Milwaukee earlier that same week, and the Major League crew had then headed for Cleveland to capture the shots of the city and ballpark that would be used in the opening and inserts throughout the movie. So they’d had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to grab some extra footage on September 30.
Monte and I exchange a social media high five. Brandon Moss grounds into an inning-ending double play. And Jordan Bastian shakes his head in wonder. “Love how,” he says, “a two-minute chat in the dugout led to ‘Unsolved Mysteries: Was Tito Really in Major League?’”
Yes, without question, we’re dorks. Yet triumphant dorks.
“Now that we have THAT settled,” Monte tweets, “time to figure out which inning it was. Groundouts ended innings 1, 4, 5, 6 & 8.”
But before that can sink in (or the Indians can strand another runner), he adds, “Just kidding…I’m out of give-a-damn at this point.”
As are the Indians, who lollygag back onto the field to wrap up their uninspired tribute to Major League after Brandon Moss grounds into their fourth double play of the night.
Still, itch scratched, puzzle solved. Terry Francona was in Major League, and a heretofore unrevealed third actual Indians game memorialized in the movie is discovered.
Next week on Unsolved Mysteries: Major League, who was the Indian shown rounding first after Dorn’s pre-Cerrano-homer single?
My guess is Carmelo Castillo, who wore number 8 that night – in what would be his last game in an Indians uniform – and had a pair of singles.
And, unlike the current Indians, didn’t strand a single runner in scoring position.
Photo: Cleveland Indians