History says he debuted 10 months later, but the truth is, the legend of pitcher Henry Rowengartner was born on the 65-degree Saturday afternoon of September 19, 1992. The Cubs had just defeated the rival Cardinals 6-5 in the first game of a doubleheader; four hours later, they would lose the second 11-10 in extra innings. Neither of those final scores really matters to the legend, because Rowengartner didn’t play in either game.
Instead, Rowengartner—the 12-year-old with a broken right arm that allowed him to throw a baseball at blazing fast speeds—pitched between the two games, to the delight of the 35,000-plus fans in attendance at Wrigley Field. As he trotted out to the field for his first appearance in a Cubs uniform, the cheers were deafening. Even when he was done for the day, the chant “We Want Henry” echoed throughout the legendary ballpark.
In July of the following year, the scene would be played to audiences across the country in the movie Rookie of the Year. Now 20 years later, the film about the kid with the broken arm who pitched for the Cubs is a cult classic, revered among Cubs fans. Henry Rowengartner, portrayed by actor Thomas Ian Nicholas, still to this day makes fans smile, his legacy as everlasting as Billy Williams and Kerry Wood, fellow Cubs to win rookie of the year awards.
“It was amazing. I remember everything about it,” Nicholas said in a recent phone conversation, reminiscing on the 20th anniversary of the film. “It was my first lead role in a feature film. I’d been acting for like six years, but this was my first big break as it were. We had a great time. We shot in Chicago for like three months.”
The movie begins with Rowengartner rotting away on his Little League team’s bench, unable to see the field, impress girls at his school, or even grab the full attention of his own mother. But when he slips and falls on a baseball and cracks his shoulder, he is suddenly able to rear back and throw a heater that would have put a young Mark Prior to shame. Through a series of cinematic events, he is signed to his favorite team, the Cubs, and learns to interact with his wacky pitching coach and oddball teammates, all while still trying to maintain his middle school friendships, catch the eye of some females and convince his mom that the guy she is dating is no good. As Henry takes the National League by storm, more and more obstacles get in his way of just being a normal kid.
(Though the movie is 20 years old, it would be rude to ruin the ending to Rookie of the Year. Just know that like Wood and Prior, the Cubs pitcher has an arm injury that makes long-term success in the Major Leagues a difficult goal to accomplish. Apparently there are some things Hollywood just can’t change.)
It is a story, most likely, that only a person naive and hopeful enough to love the Cubs with all his or her heart could adore. Yet for two decades, it has become a cult classic among loyalists of the team. On any given day at Wrigley, it is common to see fans wearing a #1 Rowengartner jersey. Countless kids growing up in the Chicagoland area—myself included—watched the film growing up and tried to emulate Henry, from practicing their pitching windups by throwing dirty clothes into the washing machine, or rearing back and hurling opposing home run balls back onto the field of play. If we could not be pre-teens pitching for the Cubs, we would copy everything the pre-teen pitching for the Cubs did instead.
“The reception to the movie, from Cubs fans especially, is amazing,” said Nicholas. “I’ve been out (at Wrigley) to throw out the first pitch, and I’ve taken some pictures with people who have the Rowengartner #1 jersey.
“I never would have thought 20 years later it would be showing on cable, and people who grew up with it would be showing it to their kids.”
Recalling that day in 1992 when he first put on the white uniform with blue pinstripes and the blue cap with the red C, Nicholas can’t help but laugh. Because there was a limited amount of time between the end of the first game and the start of the second, the only scene shot that day was a 360-degree steady-cam take where Henry walks in from the bullpen to make his debut with the team. The movie’s director (and co-star) Daniel Stern told the fans in attendance a simple rundown of the plot so they knew what was going on, and to Nicholas’s shock, “these people literally begin to lose their mind.”
“For the 30 seconds it took for me to walk from the bullpen to the mound, my name was no longer Thomas, it was Henry,” he says now. “When you have 35,000 people chanting, you’re like ‘Sure my name can be Henry. That’s great.’”
Nicholas, who also starred in the popular American Pie movies, has given up pitching, but continues to act. He is also now a father and a musician: The Thomas Nicholas Band is currently touring, and will be performing at the Cubby Bear on June 8. Around the country, Nicholas said he is mostly remembered for dating Tara Reid’s character in the blockbuster Pie films. “I’m always sort of the guy from American Pie, but not in Illinois. In Illinois, I’m Henry Rowengartner.”
The trip next week to Chicago isn’t for musical reasons only. His set will take place in the evening, after he throws out the first pitch that afternoon at Wrigley Field, a fitting tribute to the man who made the Friendly Confines break into hysterics when he first appeared there two decades before, as a kid actor in his first big-time role, a Cubs-fan-turned-pitcher who helps lead the team to the promised land.
Here’s hoping Nicholas—or is it Rowengartner?—goes out there and throws the floater.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story claimed Nicholas had stopped acting. We regret the error.