THE SIMPSONS' producer Al Jean reflects on “Homer at the Bat”

Written by: Bill Francis

Al Jean, who has served in a number of different roles with THE SIMPSONS since it became a television series, once said of his cohorts: “We’re a very unathletic group. But we certainly admire what we can’t do ourselves.”

The 25th anniversary of a specific athletic episode of the long-running animated series, entitled “Homer at the Bat,” will be celebrated by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Saturday, May 27, as part of Hall of Fame Classic Weekend. That episode originally aired on FOX on Feb. 20, 1992.

Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Ozzie Smith, who were part of the iconic episode that featured Homer Simpson winning the championship softball game for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant with a walk-off hit-by-pitch, will join in a roundtable discussion from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. outside the Library entrance to the Hall of Fame in Cooper Park. The discussion, which is free and open to the public, will also feature the episode’s executive producers Al Jean and Mike Reiss, director Jim Reardon, executive story editor Jeff Martin, and casting director Bonnie Pietila.

Other active ballplayers at the time who appeared in “Homer at the Bat” included Roger Clemens, Steve Sax, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Scioscia, as well as future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

During the roundtable, Homer will be “inducted” into the Hall of Fame. This brief ceremony will be followed with the official ribbon-cutting on a SIMPSONS-themed exhibit display in the Museum. THE SIMPSONS will also be honored prior to the Hall of Fame Classic legends game taking place that afternoon at Cooperstown’s historic Doubleday Field.
In a recent telephone interview with Jean, the 56-year-old Michigan native who has also been a writer and showrunner with THE SIMPSONS, talked about his memories of the making of “Homer at the Bat,” his own baseball fandom, and his upcoming trip to Cooperstown.

HALL OF FAME:

Al, what are your thoughts on “Homer at the Bat” being honored in Cooperstown?

AL JEAN:

It’s one of a long list of things with THE SIMPSONS I never dreamed would happen. At the time I was even shocked that we were able to get nine current major leaguers, including three that are now in the Hall of Fame, and maybe more to come. Everything with THE SIMPSONS has just been so beyond my wildest dreams, and this is a great example of it.

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HOF:

Have you ever been to Cooperstown?

AJ:

No, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve always wanted to go. I heard about it all my life. It’s just business combined with pleasure to the nth degree.

HOF:

Do you get a sense that THE SIMPSONS group you’re coming with is also excited about coming to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

AJ:

Definitely. Jeff Martin, who wrote the song at the end of the episode, is also a huge baseball fan. He once was a sportswriter for the AP. Jim Reardon, the director, is a huge Red Sox fan. So yes, a lot of dreams will be fulfilled in Cooperstown.

HOF:

Are you a big baseball fan?

AJ:

Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan since 1968 when I went to my first game. I still remember it because Dick McAuliffe and Tommy John got in a fight [John, the White Sox pitcher, battled Tigers infielder McAuliffe on August 22, 1968]. I didn’t know at the time that this didn’t happen every game.

HOF:

Were you much of a baseball player?

AJ:

No. I was in T-ball but not coordinated, so I much preferred playing basketball. But as a spectator, baseball is definitely the best.

Ozzie Smith, pictured above as he falls into the Springfield Mystery Spot, will be among the Hall of Famers discussing THE SIMPSONS "Homer at the Bat" episode on May 27 at the Hall of Fame. (Photo Courtesy of FOX)

HOF:

Since you’ve been living in California, have you changed your fan allegiance from the Tigers to the Dodgers or Angels?

AJ:

You know, growing up as an American League fan, the Dodgers might as well have played on Mars. You just never saw them. So I had no particular feeling toward them, maybe mildly positive. But I go to a lot of Angels games because that’s where the Tigers play when they’re here, obviously. So I’m a mild fan of both of them but when I look at the standings my eyes always drift to Detroit.

HOF:

Can you share any specific memories of the “Homer at the Bat” episode?

AJ:

Quite a few. Sam Simon, who was one of the guys who really created the series and has since passed away, said you can do a show where you can get nine big league baseball players. Just get them when they come to play the Angels or the Dodgers, but shoot for the best team you can at the time. Fantasy baseball had just started, so this was like picking your ultimate fantasy team. We were turned down by a couple of people, but we got Mike Scioscia, who was hilarious and who we’ve had back on the show [the “MoneyBART” episode first aired on Oct. 10, 2010]. Everybody we had on was great. And I directed the audio of a few of them, which was a thrill, and Jeff directed a few of them. It’s just amazing that that we pulled it off. And it [the “Homer at the Bat” episode] was the first that we aired that ever beat The Cosby Show in the ratings, which was a big deal.

HOF:

So ratings-wise, the episode was a real turning point for the show?

AJ:

Yes. It was sort of saying that we were not just a flash in the pan; that we were going to be around for a while, but again, nobody would have dreamed this long. The episode also had one of the worst table reads ever. We had two table reads on the same day, which we hadn’t done before or since. And it was the second script read and no laughs. Just complete dead silence. So my initial thought was I hope I keep my job.

HOF:

Are you looking forward to seeing Wade Boggs and Ozzie Smith?

AJ:

It will be terrific. I’ll ask Wade Boggs who he really prefers, Pitt the Elder or Lord Palmerston, which there is an argument in the show [Boggs couldn't play in the game because he got in an argument with Barney at Moe’s Tavern over who was the greatest English Prime Minister]. And Ozzie Smith, I didn’t direct him but I remember his son came, who is now famous in his own right, and he did a great Bart impression.

HOF:

So you remember the players doing their voice work for the show?

AJ:

Oh yeah. I remember recording Mattingly and Sax. And Mattingly was going, ‘Wait a minute. He gets to play in a band but I’ve got to be in an apron doing dishes?’ We were like, ‘Sorry, but it’s in the script.’ Of course, we could have changed it. [laughs] And I can’t remember who it was, but one of the other players was chuckling that we had Darryl Strawberry as the guy who was really kissing up to the manager. I directed him and he was really nice. He didn’t know we were going to put the thing in where he was crying at the fans chanting ‘Darryl.’ At the time it was my idea to stick that in and I was wondering if it was fair or not [laughs] and I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do.

Hall of Famers Wade Boggs (left) and Ken Griffey Jr. were among the baseball players featured in THE SIMPSONS "Homer at the Bat" episode. Boggs will participate in THE SIMPSONS roundtable discussion at this year's Hall of Fame Classic. (Photo Courtesy of FOX)

HOF:

Is it safe to say the “Homer at the Bat” episode is one of the more popular?

AJ:

Yes, it’s definitely one you hear about a lot. There’s nostalgia because a lot of people were kids when it first aired. Looking at it again, as I did recently, it’s a real glimpse of ‘90s era baseball. Baseball has changed since then – it’s a different kind of game.

HOF:

And having Don Mattingly’s sideburns play a part in the episode seemed to be a bit of foreshadowing?

AJ:

That was actually based on, and I’m not kidding, my grandfather. He ran a hardware store and he would say to kids with short hair to get a haircut. So we had Mr. Burns say it to Mattingly. And then, entirely coincidently, Steinbrenner fined him for having long hair after we recorded him, which is nuts. I never dreamed that would happen.

HOF:

I read the writer of the episode, John Swartzwelder, is a big baseball fan, too, right?

AJ:

He’s a big baseball fan. He actually was known for renting out the Kingdome in Seattle one day a year and have a softball game with his friends at a major league stadium.

HOF:

And the voice of Homer, Dan Castellaneta, is a big baseball fan, too.

AJ:

Yes, I remember when Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. came in, Dan came in talking like Homer and he goes, “Top of the ninth, Wrigley Field, three-run homer by Ken Griffey Sr. ruins the Cubs hopes.” Griffey Sr. laughed and remembered that happening. Dan is a very big Cubs fan.

HOF:

Is it true that the players involved in the episode are still asked about it?

AJ:

I’ve heard that the players get asked about it like once a week. Which is crazy because they’ve got so much to be famous for and they still get asked about this silly little cartoon.

HOF:

Does it seem like it’s been 25 years since the episode aired?

AJ:

No, because right now I’m in the same room that I was in when we were talking with Sam Simon about the original idea.

HOF:

It must feel amazing to be involved in the longest running scripted show in TV history.

AJ:

I thought it was going to be a good show when I joined because the writers were good and there hadn’t been a primetime animated show for years, but the longevity and the worldwide fame of the show has been amazing.


Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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