Former Las Vegas showgirl Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) inherits the Cleveland Indians baseball team from her deceased husband, Donald. Phelps receives a lucrative offer to move the team to Miami, but she must first trigger the escape clause in the team's contract with the city of Cleveland. To do this, she must cause attendance at the games to fall below a certain level. She decides to replace existing players with aging veterans and inexperienced rookies in the hopes that a bad team will cause attendance to decline. Phelps hires Lou Brown, a manager for the Toledo Mud Hens, to manage the team.
During spring training in Tucson, Brown and veteran catcher Jake Taylor discover the new team has a number of interpersonal issues as well as their own struggles with the game. Problems include prima donna third baseman Roger Dorn, the weakening arm of veteran pitcher Eddie Harris; Taylor's knee issues; the inability of outfielder Pedro Cerrano to hit curveballs; and Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn's dangerous lack of pitching control. The team starts the season on a losing streak and Brown is about to demote Vaughn to the minors until he accidentally discovers that Vaughn has poor vision. After being fitted with glasses, Vaughn's performance improves and the team begins to win. Taylor discovers that his ex-girlfriend Lynn is living in Cleveland and tries to reconcile with her despite her being engaged to marry another man. Phelps, angered by the team's improvement, tries to demoralize them by removing team amenities. She replaces their chartered team jet with a rickety propeller plane, refuses to fix their workout equipment, and even has the hot water to the locker room turned off. Despite her efforts the team continues to win and bring themselves into contention for the division championship
The team GM Charlie Donovan visits Brown and informs him of Phelps' plan to make the team lose. He tells Brown that no matter how well they do, they will be fired or released after the season. Brown holds a team meeting and lets the players know of Phelps' plan. Taylor speaks up and encourages the players to win the title anyway, and Brown comes up with a way to motivate them into winning enough games to capture the title. The team succeeds in tying the division with the New York Yankees, leading to a one-game playoff to determine the champions. In the playoff game in Cleveland, the Yankees take an early lead but Cerrano is able to overcome his inability to hit a curveball and hits a home run to tie the game. In the top of the 9th with the bases loaded, Vaughn manages to strike out the Yankees' best hitter and preserve the tie.
With the game tied and the Indians with two outs, Willie Mays Hayes manages a single to get on base. He then steals second base while Taylor is batting, leading Taylor to suggest a trick play. Taylor steps in to bat and points to the outfield to "call his shot" like Babe Ruth famously did. Yankees pitcher The Duke brushes Taylor off home plate by intentionally throwing at his head, but a stubborn Taylor gets back up and again points to the outfield. With the Yankees prepared for the long play, Taylor instead bunts, allowing Hayes to make it to home safely and win the game. As the team celebrates Taylor spots Lynn in the stands, no longer wearing her engagement ring. The two rush to hug each other as the city celebrates the victory.
The theatrical release's ending includes Rachel Phelps, apparently unable to move the team because of increased attendance, angry and disappointed about the team's success. An alternate ending on the "Wild Thing Edition" DVD shows a very different characterization of Phelps. Lou tenders his resignation and tells Phelps that he can't in good conscience work for her after she sought to sabotage the team for her own personal gain. Phelps then tells him that, in fact, she loves the Indians and never intended to move them. However, when she inherited the club from her late husband, it was on the brink of bankruptcy. Unable to afford top flight players, she decided to take a chance on unproven players from the lower leagues, whom she personally scouted, and talented older players who were generally considered washed up. She tells Lou that she likewise felt that he was the right manager to bring the ragtag group together.
Phelps conceived the Miami scheme and adopted a catty, vindictive persona to unify and motivate the team. As the players believed that she wanted the Indians to fail, she was able to conceal that the team could not afford basic amenities such as chartered jet travel behind a veil of taking them away to spite the players.
Lou does not resign, but Phelps reasserts her authority by saying that if he shares any part of their conversation with anyone, she will fire him.
This alternate ending was actually the original ending and was filmed and shown to test screening audiences before the movie's release. The producers said that although the twist ending worked as a resolution to the plot, they scrapped it after preview audiences responded negatively, preferring the Phelps character as a villain.
The film's opening montage is a series of somber blue-collar images of the Cleveland landscape synchronized to the score of Randy Newman's "Burn On": an ode to the infamous day in Cleveland when the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire.
Despite being set in Cleveland, the film was principally shot in Milwaukee because it was cheaper and the producers were unable to work around the schedules of the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns. Milwaukee County Stadium, then the home of the Brewers (and three Green Bay Packers games per season), doubles as Cleveland Stadium for the film, although several exterior shots of Cleveland Stadium were used, including some aerial shots taken during an Indians game. In fact, the sign for the TV station atop the scoreboard is for WTMJ, the NBC affiliate for Milwaukee. One of the ending scenes of the movie is in West Milwaukee's legendary restaurant, 4th Base which showcases their unique horseshoe bar that is shown in the celebration scenes. Another restaurant scene, at the then Gritz Pazazz on Milwaukee's north side, is no longer open for business. Both facilities have since been demolished: the playing field of County Stadium is now a Little League baseball field known as Helfaer Field, while the rest of the former site is now a parking lot for the Brewers' new home, Miller Park; the new Cleveland Browns stadium (now FirstEnergy Stadium), a football-only facility owned by the City of Cleveland and used by the Browns, sits on the site of its predecessor.
The film was notable for featuring several actors who would go on to stardom: Snipes and Russo were relative unknowns before the movie was released, while Haysbert remained best known as Pedro Cerrano until he portrayed US President David Palmer on the television series 24.
The film also featured former Major League players, including 1982 American League Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich as Yankees first baseman Clu Haywood, former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Willie Mueller as the Yankees pitcher Duke Simpson, known as "The Duke", and former Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager as third-base coach Duke Temple. Former catcher and longtime Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker played the Indians' broadcaster Harry Doyle. The names of several crewmembers were also used for peripheral players.
Sheen himself was a pitcher on his high school's baseball team. At the time of filming Major League, his own fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour. (In 2011, Sheen said that he had used steroids for nearly two months to improve his athletic abilities in the film.)
The film debuted at No. 1 at the box office. The movie had a mostly positive reception. It has an 82% "fresh" rating on review website Rotten Tomatoes based on 38 reviews, with trade magazine Variety calling it "sheer crowd pleasing fun".
Due to the success of the film, two sequels have been produced neither of which achieved the original's success. Major League II returned most of the original stars, with the notable exception of Wesley Snipes, and focused on the following season and the players' reaction to the previous season's success. Major League: Back to the Minors again starred Corbin Bernsen, but this time, as the owner of the Minnesota Twins, attempting to turn around the Twins' AAA team, the Buzz. A possible third sequel, Major League 3, (which was to ignore Back to the Minors) was reported in 2010 to be in development by original writer and producer David S. Ward. Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Snipes would return, with the plot revolving around Ricky Vaughn coming out of retirement to work with a young player. In 2015, Morgan Creek Productions announced that the sequel was still in the works.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Sports Film
When he joined the Cubs in 1989 (the same year the film was released), pitcher Mitch Williams' extravagant wind-up and release, and his frequent wild pitches, earned him the nickname "Wild Thing." As with Rick Vaughn's character, the Wrigley Field organist played "Wild Thing" as Williams came out of the bullpen. A few years later, in 1993 with the Phillies, Williams started wearing the number 99 on his jersey, the same number that Vaughn wears in the film.
In the years since its release Major League has become a beloved film of many professional baseball players and announcers, and is often referenced during game broadcasts. For example, in 2014, for the film's 25th anniversary, Major League catcher David Ross filmed a one-man tribute to the film, with Ross playing the part (among others) of Lou Brown, Pedro Cerrano, Willie Mays Hayes, Rick Vaughn, and Roger Dorn. Additionally, as part of their 2014 "Archives" set, the trading card company Topps celebrated the film's 25th anniversary by creating baseball cards (using the same design as the company's 1989 base set) of Roger Dorn, Jake Taylor, Eddie Harris, Rachel Phelps, Rick Vaughn, and "Jobu."
The film became an inspiration for the real Cleveland Indians and the city, given the previously long-standing Cleveland sports curse that had left Cleveland without any sporting championships in between 1964 and 2016 (when the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers won their first title in their 46-year history). Ironically, the Indians reached the 2016 World Series, but lost in heartbreaking fashion to Ross and the similarly cursed Cubs, surrendering a 3-1 lead in the series. Between 1995 and 2016, the team went to the World Series three times, though losing each time.
Major League was made into and released as a sports video game, developed by Lenar and published by Irem, exclusively for the NES in Japan in 1989.
The character Jobu (Pedro Cerrano's voodoo figure) was immortalized soon after the film's 25th anniversary in 2015 and produced by a company called "The Jobu Lifestyle." The packaging is a reference to Cerrano's locker that made up Jobu's shrine.
When Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic's outfielder Cody Decker brought the team's mascot, "Mensch on the Bench", a five-foot-tall stuffed toy that looks a bit like a rabbi or Hasidic Jew, with him to Asia from the United States for the WBC, Decker said, "He’s a mascot, he’s a friend, he’s a teammate, he’s a borderline deity to our team.... He brings a lot to the table.... Every team needs their Jobu. He was ours. He had his own locker, and we even gave him offerings: Manischewitz, gelt, and gefilte fish... He is everywhere and nowhere all at once. His actual location is irrelevant because he exists in higher metaphysical planes. But he’s always near."