Retroactive Review: Little Big League

(via Columbia Pictures)

When someone mentions “baseball comedies,” probably one or two movies immediately float to mind. Maybe you’re a Sandlot connoisseur, or a Major League buff. Perhaps you grew up laughing along to Bernie Mac’s antics in Mr. 3000 or followed Tom Selleck off to Japan in 1992’s Mr. Baseball. Or perhaps you favor the classics, such as Rookie of the YearMajor LeagueAngels in the Outfield, and Bull Durham. One baseball comedy that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as films like Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield is 1994’s (vastly underrated) Little Big League.

Little Big League centers on an 11-year-old boy, Billy Heywood, who inherits ownership of the Minnesota Twins baseball team from his grandfather after he passes on. Billy, a huge baseball buff and Twins fan, is a hands-on owner and soon replaces his gruff, no-nonsense manager with—well, himself. Because no other candidates are willing to answer to a kid owner, Billy himself must step into the role. Billy knows just about everything there is to know about baseball. Managing a team can’t be that hard, can it?

As it turns out, it’s very hard. Billy soon finds that some of the players aren’t the least bit interested in being managed by a kid. He’s also introduced to the business side of baseball when he has to release his idol, Jerry; Billy soon makes a bad situation even worse when he tells Jerry that he likes him so much that he refused to trade his baseball card of Jerry. Billy also picks up bad habits on the road, purchasing pay-per-view porn (11 times!), skipping out on his friends, and talking back to his mother (and a major league ump). Billy comes to understand he doesn’t much like the business side of baseball or the day-to-day stresses that come with the job, and misses being a normal kid.

Little Big League isn’t a masterclass in filmmaking, by any stretch of the imagination. The scene with Billy watching an adult film is indeed eyebrow-raising, though it helps show how Billy is changing, as is the casual use of a slur (that has thankfully fallen out of usage in the ensuing years). There’s also a romantic subplot involving Lou and Jenny, Billy’s mother, that doesn’t really feel essential to the movie, save the scene when Billy benches Lou for dating her. Also, how would an 11-year-old be able to inherit ownership of and then manage a baseball team?

I suppose the fun thing about this movie, despite some unanswered plot-holes, is that it’s pretty easy to go along with it. The characters are likable and the film sprinkles contemporary major league stars throughout, giving an air of authenticity and realism. The plot is engaging and fairly unpredictable for a kid-oriented sports film, there are no actual villains (unless you count superstars like Ken Griffey Jr.Randy Johnson, and Paul O’Neill), and while the film doesn’t ask a ton of its audience, it doesn’t dumb down anything either. It’s a family-oriented movie that both kids and adults alike can enjoy (provided you can suspend your disbelief and go with the premise that a middle schooler can both own and manage a baseball team).

While Little Big League might boast shades of a morality tale aimed at the elementary-aged, it’s also a strong comedic film with some dramatic elements that older kids and adults can enjoy. The movie does a good job of portraying the issues that arise following Billy’s inheriting of the baseball team and how these circumstances affect him and those around him. Its true strengths, however, lie in the game it portrays—and Billy loves so much.

Perhaps most importantly, most of the ballplayers in the movie are portrayed by current (at the time) or former baseball players. Ex-players such as Leon DurhamBrad LesleyKevin ElsterScott Patterson, and Michael Papajohn portray Billy’s Minnesota Twins team while several contemporary major league stars appear playing themselves, notably Junior, The Big Unit, O’Neill, and Pudge Rodriguez. Perhaps because of the authentic casting, the baseball action scenes never feel phony or scripted. This movie is probably the only baseball film I’ve watched that has realistic baseball sequences and pitching motions. Even the non-athletes, like Weekend at Bernie’s star Jonathan Silverman as an eccentric reliever and thirtysomething’s Timothy Busfield as the team’s first baseman, look and feel like real baseball players.

While Little Big League has much to recommend it, perhaps the most memorable moment of the movie, for me, is Ken Griffey Jr.’s role in the film’s climax. The Twins draw Griffey’s Seattle Mariners in a one-game playoff at the Metrodome—“where have we heard that before?” asks this bitter Detroit Tigers fan—and the two clubs play a tense, closely contested game. In the bottom of the ninth, Lou comes to bat with two outs, a man on, and the Twins trailing by one run. He lofts a fly ball that looks like it’s going to be a game-winning home run that will cement him as a hero—only for Junior to leap up and snag it over the fence, thereby saving the day for the Mariners and knocking the Twins out of the Wild Card.

The ending of the film comes as a mild gut-punch before reality sets in. The raucous Twins crowd refuses to leave and instead gives its little-engine-that-could team—and its unlikely owner/manager—a rousing standing “O,” celebrating the journey they took to get there rather than mourning the loss that ultimately eliminated them.

We have, as an audience, grown to expect baseball movies, especially family-friendly ones, to give us those triumphant moments with the hero hitting the walkoff home run or closing out the game. And yet the final, pivotal moment in Little Big League isn’t any less triumphant despite the outcome. The Twins don’t win the Wild Card, and yet it doesn’t feel like a loss. After the game, Billy steps down as manager, replacing himself with his confidante, the team’s longtime pitching coach. He retreats to the owner’s box, and happily returns to the ordinary life of an 11-year-old boy. Though the Twins don’t win the big game and Billy steps down, this isn’t a sad ending. It’s not necessarily a happy ending, either. The true joy of Little Big League is in the journey it took to get to the final outcome, even if that final outcome ended up in Ken Griffey Jr.’s outstretched glove.

Things of Note:

  • If you’re wondering where you recognize Mike McGreevey from, it’s Gilmore Girls. After a seven-year minor league career and his role as the self-centered McGreevey in Little Big League, Scott Patterson went on to star as Luke Danes on the hit TV show.
  • To honor the 20th anniversary of Little Big League, the real-life Minnesota Twins recreated the film, inviting teenager Ryan Lueschen to manage the team for a day. Luke Edwards, who played Billy Heywood, was involved too.
  • A lot of the film’s baseball action was handled by the second unit director—Bill Pohlad, a film producer and member of the family that owns the Twins.

You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.
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4 years ago

Billy was also ahead of his time in his belief that maybe bunting wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

4 years ago

If I was asked to help make a movie and they told me all I have to do is play baseball, hell I’d do it for free!

Morris Buttermaker
4 years ago

A cowboy rides into town on Friday. He stays 3 days and then leaves on Friday. How did he do it?

Nutting Tusiheremember
4 years ago

Friday was his horse, unless you’re talking more recent, in which case he’s one of those dweebs who named his F-150.