Column: ‘Cheers’ actor Tim Cunningham shares his love of baseball at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame

Tim Cunningham, a character actor from the 1980s' hit TV series "Cheers," stands in front of a wall.
Tim Cunningham, a character actor from the 1980s’ hit TV series “Cheers,” still makes them laugh coaching baseball at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

For months, if not years, after constant lobbying and pleading for Tim Cunningham to sit down and tell some of his stories and experiences, he finally relented on a cold, windy morning after a promise of coffee and a commitment to make sure anything printed would be appropriate for a newspaper.

So there he was at a crowded Porto’s in Northridge offering his first Yogi Berra quotation: “The place is so popular nobody goes there.”

With a gravel voice reduced because of throat surgery three years ago, Cunningham perfectly fits the role of a character actor who makes teenagers and adults alike smile and laugh after he blurts out one of his classic quips. It’s no wonder he spent 11 years on the legendary TV comedy “Cheers” playing the role of a bar patron because that’s the personality he exhibits — lovable, jovial and full of baseball stories. He turned 77 on Saturday.


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When COVID-19 struck, one of his first appearances from “Cheers” nearly 40 years ago became a favorite clip on YouTube. He was a customer named Chuck explaining how he had a janitor’s job at a biology lab where they did DNA experiments making mutant viruses. The bar owner, Sam Malone (played by Ted Danson), tells him, “Don’t sweat it.” Chuck leaves and Sam starts spraying disinfectant around the bar.

Cunningham was an assistant coach for the Northridge Little League team in 1994 that made it to the Little League World Series. He and then 12-year-old Matt Cassel were the greatest comedy team since Laurel and Hardy. “We were cohorts,” said Cunningham.

He became an assistant coach at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame when his son, Matt, a top catcher for the Northridge Little League team, reached high school. He was the head coach at Studio City Harvard-Westlake in 2003, guiding the team to the Southern Section Division 3 finals behind a pitcher, Jason Glushon, who barely threw 80 mph. They lost to Encino Crespi and pitcher Trevor Plouffe 1-0 at Angel Stadium. Glushon became an NBA agent, Plouffe became a major league third baseman and Cunningham was The Times’ coach of the year. He was fired three years later.

He returned to Notre Dame as an assistant, helping in all kinds of capacities and briefly worked as a scout for the Houston Astros. In 2007, he suffered a ruptured aorta and spent three weeks in intensive care. “My wife asks the surgeon, ‘Be honest with me. What’s his chances? Five percent,’ ” Cunningham recalled.

He spends so much time at Notre Dame these days helping coach hitters and throwing batting practice at all three levels, you wonder if he has a cot where the brothers used to sleep on campus.

Tim Cunningham, a longtime assistant baseball coach at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame.
Tim Cunningham, a longtime assistant baseball coach at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and former actor, turned 77 on Saturday. He discusses his many stories about baseball and life.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Born in Freeport, Ill., on Jan. 21, 1946, he attended Catholic schools for 16 years, receiving plenty of scoldings from the nuns. His idol was Hank Aaron, whom he saw in 1954 when Aaron was in his rookie season. He never got his degree from Marquette in the 1960s because of faltering grades from spending too much time showing up for civil rights and Vietnam War protests.

He moved to Boston and got involved in construction and acting. All the while, he developed a deep love for baseball. He’d watch Aaron, Ted Williams and Willie Mays. And of course, there was Yogi Berra, the catcher and later manager of the Yankees known for his odd comments that Cunningham has memorized.

“His wife said, ‘Yogi, I’m going to see “Doctor Zhivago,” ’ which was a movie. Yogi said, ‘What’s wrong with you now?’ ”

“In spring training, they do drills. He said, ‘OK guys, I want you to pair up in threes.’ There was stunned silence.”

Cunningham’s father was a railroad worker who died in an accident three days before his sixth birthday, leaving behind five children and a wife. Baseball became his love when an uncle asked if he wanted to play catch soon after. He never stopped. But he didn’t become a coach until he volunteered for Northridge Little League in 1988. “I was smitten,” he said.

His daughter, Elizabeth, became a lawyer and works for a coalition in Chicago that helps represent homeless children. His son teaches at the University of South Carolina. Cunningham has two young grandsons and has been married to his wife, Pat, for 47 years. She works with autistic children. He’s an avid reader. His mother once subscribed to the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and magazines Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest.


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Teaching hitting is his passion. He has studied long and hard and likes to direct players to YouTube videos of great players from the past, such as Tony Gwynn. It saddens him when young players today do not pay attention to baseball’s history. “They’re involved in a game that’s legendary,” he said.

At Notre Dame, there are so many people involved in the entertainment business, it would not be surprising to have deals made in the bleachers or parking lot. One time Cunningham was headed to the bathroom during a game against Harvard-Westlake when he and a woman, who had a son playing, made eye contact.

“Didn’t we ... ?”

Yes, they appeared together on the same TV show.

“I played a lot of cops,” said Cunningham, whose pitcher during his Harvard-Westlake days was Brad Allen, grandson of the legendary TV host Steve Allen.

These days, it’s the parents of Notre Dame players who are excited to ask Cunningham about his “Cheers” days. The players only giggle when they learn he used to be an actor.

They asked him what he used to say as a pro scout when he saw a hitter who couldn’t hit.

“He couldn’t hit a medicine ball with a revolving door.”

Always count on Cunningham to offer your favorite bar patron quip.