5 things you didn’t know about 'The Sandlot,' including casting changes, legal battles, and the story behind James Earl Jones's character

Producer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies

The Sandlot was not exactly a home run upon its release in 1993. You could say many critics and audiences at the time felt it was a bit of an L7 weenie. Yet, over the intervening years, the baseball comedy has become a must-see multigenerational family classic that will probably be loved forever. Yahoo Entertainment sat down with the boys of summer as well as their director, David Mickey Evans, to talk about some things even the movie’s biggest fans might not have known about the film, which marks its 25th anniversary this week.

1. James Earl Jones’s character is pure fiction.

James Earl Jones appeared in a brief but memorable role as Mr. Mertle, a blind and retired Negro League ballplayer. Towards the end of the film, Tom Guiry (Smalls) looks at a photo of Mertle alongside two real New York Yankee legends, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. For years, fans have assumed that James Earl Jones’s character was based on a real ballplayer. The answer is no. Mertle’s backstory was created after Jones was cast.

“Mr. Mertle was not written with any specific ethnicity or anything like that,” said director David Mickey Evans. “We didn’t know who to cast and [assistant director Bill Elvin, who worked on Field of Dreams] said, ‘Why don’t we get James Earl Jones?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, fat chance, we’re never going to get James Earl Jones.'”

Given that The Sandlot is set in 1962, the filmmakers had to tweak the Mertle character to reflect baseball’s segregated history. “An African-American, in reality, would never have been playing with Babe Ruth in those particular years,” Evans added. “We did a quick polish [on the script] and the rest is history.”

2. Sandlot co-writer Robert Gunter came up with the classic line “You’re killing me, Smalls.”

Evans credits his writing partner, Robert Gunter, with a line so popular that people sometimes don’t realize where it came from. “I fell out of my chair while we were writing it and I said, ‘Man that is hysterical.’”

While Patrick Renna (Ham) nailed the line reading in the final cut, Evans said the young actor needed coaching on getting the proper inflection. Even when that was settled, it still required nine takes to get a usable version because of the “goofballs busting up” every time he said it.

The cast of <em>The Sandlot</em>&nbsp;as they appeared in 1993, from left: Patrick Renna (Ham), Victor DiMattia (Timmy), Shane Obedzinski (Repeat), Mike Vitar (Benny), Tom Guiry (Smalls), Chauncey Leopardi (Squints), Marty York (Yeah-Yeah), Grant Gelt (Bertram), Brandon Quintin Adams (Kenny), and James Earl Jones (Mr. Mertle). (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The cast of The Sandlot as they appeared in 1993, from left: Patrick Renna (Ham), Victor DiMattia (Timmy), Shane Obedzinski (Repeat), Mike Vitar (Benny), Tom Guiry (Smalls), Chauncey Leopardi (Squints), Marty York (Yeah-Yeah), Grant Gelt (Bertram), Brandon Quintin Adams (Kenny), and James Earl Jones (Mr. Mertle). (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

3. Many of the actors wound up switching parts.

It may be hard to believe, but the roster of young actors shuffled their roles before production began.

“I originally read for Yeah-Yeah,” Chauncey Leopardi (Squints) told Yahoo. “We got pretty deep into casting. And David wanted me to read Squints. … [I] was kind of upset about it because I wanted to be Yeah-Yeah. … It worked out in my 11-year-old favor that summer when I got to jump in the pool [and kiss Marley Shelton].”

“I originally read for Bertram,” Marty York (Yeah-Yeah) chimed in.

“And I read for Smalls,” added Grant Gelt (Bertram).

“We knew we wanted these individual personalities,” noted Evans. “You put them all up in a room and line them up and you go, ‘Oh wait a minute.’ It becomes pretty obvious pretty quick [who should play who].”

4. Five different dogs played Hercules, aka the Beast.

The Sandlot was filmed over the course of 42 hot summer days in Utah, and the weather was especially brutal for the dogs who played Hercules. “They would run six yards and collapse in the heat,” Evans said.

If you think that the young cast might have had a great time playing with these pooches, you’d be wrong. “We were prohibited from really going near the Beast because it was a distraction for the dog,” added Victor DiMattia (Timmy Timmons).

“We couldn’t go near the Beast or Wendy Peffercorn (Marley Shelton),” joked Renna.

That’s right, just like the actors were told to stay away from the dogs, they were told to leave Shelton alone.

“I remember Dave saying, ‘Look, I’m bringing a girl into the room,’” reminisced York. “‘Don’t get crazy, I know how you guys are. Don’t talk to her.’”

“We were at lunch the day she came on set for the first time,” added DiMattia. “You got us all together in a group and said, ‘Listen don’t mess with her. Don’t pull any pranks. Don’t even talk to her.’”

“She sat down and we all gathered around her and said, ‘Which one of us do you like the best?’” York said, wrapping up what seemed to be the most vivid memory for all the actors. “She was like, ‘You guys are 12 — I don’t like any of you!”

5. The Sandlot got involved in a legal battle.

In the ’90s, Michael Polydoros, one of Evans’s childhood friends, sued the makers of The Sandlot, claiming that “Squints” Palledorous was an exploitation of his likeness. The lawsuit was eventually tossed out.

“I won the lawsuit and made California state law — none of these kids that were in this movie were any boy I knew, but all the kids in this movie were every boy I knew,” said Evans, paraphrasing Mark Twain’s forward to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

“It was unfortunate,” Evans continued. “But it was what it was. Welcome to Hollywood — [Stranger Things creators] the Duffer brothers are getting sued right now.”

“I was offended I wasn’t sued,” joked Renna.

A special 25th anniversary edition of The Sandlot is now available on Blu-ray.

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