Saturday Night Baseball
The brainchild of Canadian-American writer, comedian, and producer Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live (SNL) premiered on NBC in 1975 and has since become a mainstay in American television comedy, celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015.
The show’s basic formula has stayed consistent—a celebrity guest host, with an ensemble of comedians performing in variety sketches. From the beginning, the show drew on subject matter from American politics, popular culture, current events and beyond. Nothing was off limits, including baseball.
Sometimes SNL cast members would deliver baseball impressions, but equally often baseball figures appeared as themselves. Derek Jeter’s 2001 appearance is the only time a professional baseball player has hosted the show, but “Mr. Baseball” Bob Uecker hosted in 1984, intermittent New York Yankees manager hosted Billy Martin in 1986, and former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner served as a host in 1990.
When he wasn’t moonlighting as a motivational speaker, Chris Farley portrayed Philadelphia Phillies three-time All Star John Kruk, including during a 1994 “Major League Players Association” sketch. Deion Sanders plays himself, delivering an impassioned speech about the need to stand firm in the battle with team owners – stopping only to take cell phone calls from his agent about the status of his NFL contract negotiation.
The 1994-95 strike was the subject of another SNL sketch, “Super Sports Tours,” which aired September 1994—around the same time Major League Baseball’s postseason pennant races should have been heating up. “Super Sports Tours is proud to announce its 1994 Fall baseball cruise! This is Super Sports Tours biggest baseball cruise ever! Over 700 major leaguers, sailing with you and eleven other lucky guests. That's almost 70 players per passenger!”
The sketch lists notable players on the cruise (including future Hall of Fame members Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Kirby Puckett and Ken Griffey, Jr.) before scrolling quickly through a credit-style list of player names. The sketch ends with a clip of players in uniform on the cruises ship’s deck. “We're on vacation…and you should be, too!”
The strike continued through March 1995, when United States District Court for the Southern District of New York judge (and now a member of the United States Supreme Court) Sonia Sotomayor issued a preliminary ruling in favor of the players. Fans can find her gavel in the Museum’s Whole New Ballgame exhibit case about the 1994 strike.
As part of an October 1996 Weekend Update, Will Ferrell appeared as 1989 Frick Award winner and long-time Chicago Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray to preview the 1996 Braves-Yankees World Series. “It’s gonna be one heck of a series. These are two fantastic ball clubs with outstanding pitching,” specifically mentioning Andy Pettitte, David Cone, and future Hall of Fame players John Smoltz and Tom Glavine (“He's always tough, Norm”). But the Series preview quickly goes off the rails as Ferrell as Caray insist on talking about everything but the actual game. “Let's start with the Yankees. They play in New York City. Wow! What a town!”
A pair of Harry Caray’s actual signature glasses are part of the Whole New Ballgame exhibit and can currently be seen across the country as part of the We Are Baseball tour.
Most of SNL’s baseball-themed segments lightly mock the sport’s characters and quirks. But sometimes the show’s writers used comedy to deliver more pointed commentary. In the 1990 “Harassing a Female Reporter,” Steinbrenner (as himself) brushes aside the complaints Jan Post, playing a New York Post reporter, raises about clubhouse and locker room sexual harassment. And in 2015, “Their Own League” offered an alternate version of the 1992 Columbia Pictures film A League of Their Own about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Dressed in Rockford Peaches uniforms, Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, and a tunic-clad Bobby Moynihan are coached by a gruff Taran Killam. The women question whether women really should play baseball, until McKinnon steps in to argue otherwise. After a “women CAN play baseball” cheer, Taraji Henson asks if she can join the team. The Rockford Peaches awkwardly mutter until McKinnon responds “we kind of already have the woman thing.”
Outside “Their Own League” and “Harassing a Female Reporter,” few SNL baseball sketches delivered such pointed commentary about inequality or discrimination in baseball. Most used a lighter comedic tone, as was the case in a 1984 “Little League Trade” sketch featuring Bob Uecker, Billy Crystal, and Gary Kroger. Playing Crystal’s father, Uecker tells his son that their efforts to use performance-enhancing drugs to stunt his growth (and keep in in League League longer) weren’t going to make up for his poor athletic performance. After finding out he’s “been optioned to the Martin family,” Crystal stares inside his living room as Uecker welcomes Kroger playing Juan, a 10-year old Cuban prospect.
Given the rich history of baseball and Saturday Night Live, fans of the sport and the show can only hope the partnership continues. From exaggerated impressions to biting parody, SNL has reminded multiple generations of baseball fans that at the end of the day, baseball should always be able to laugh at itself.
Katie Walden was the library research intern in the Class of 2016 Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum