For folks who loves both baseball and movies, it’s incredibly sad that Hollywood’s takes on our national pastime continually whiff with a frequency that makes Adam Dunn look like Joe DiMaggio. But 40 years ago today, a film was released that got everything beautifully, hilariously and even painfully right: The Bad News Bears. A tartly-scripted comic saga about a no-hope Little League team from L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, the film — directed by Michael Ritchie from an original screenplay written by Bill Lancaster — shocked and amused audiences with its unbridled vulgarity and unvarnished portrayal of youth sports.
A surprise hit, it became the eleventh highest-grossing American film of 1976, outpacing the likes of Taxi Driver, Logan’s Run and The Man Who Fell to Earth at the box office. It blew the minds of countless kids who recognized themselves up there on the silver screen, but it also resonated deeply with adult viewers and critics, as well; Jay Cocks of Time described the film as “a fracturing comedy of honor, victory and defeat,” while Roger Ebert called it “an unblinking, scathing look at competition in American society.”
Yes, the two subsequent sequels — The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978) — completely sucked, drawing upon only the foul-mouthed obnoxiousness of the original and forgetting its heart or its humor; and the 2005 remake with Billy Bob Thornton is a perfect object lesson in why great films shouldn’t be subjected to remakes. But let not the failings of those movies dissuade you from enjoying what is truly the greatest baseball movie ever made. Need further convincing? Then check out these nine things that The Bad News Bears gets right, where so many other baseball films swing and miss.
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1. The Kids
The Bad News Bears is about kids, but they’re real kids, not bland, cutesy, lovable Hollywood moppets. These pre-teens are unwashed, obnoxious, cynical, fractious, gleefully profane, unrepentantly juvenile, and deeply untrusting of any sort of authority — in other words, just like the kids you probably played team sports with. Who among us didn’t know a shit-talking red-ass like Tanner Boyle (Chris Barnes), a stat-crunching nerd like Alfred Oglivie (Alfred W. Lutter), an obnoxious fat kid like Mike Engleberg (Gary Lee Cavagnaro) or a booger-eating outcast like Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith)? And who among us didn’t play against smug, more talented kids like Joey Turner (Brandon Cruz)?
2. The Adults
For all of the youngsters’ scrapping and name-calling, the adults actually behave far worse. The Bears owe their very existence to a city councilman named Bob Whitewood (Ben Piazza), who has sued the competitive North Valley League to expand in order to let less-talented players like his son Toby (David Stambagh) into the league. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that he’s more concerned about the team’s impact on his own image than he is about kids being allowed to play ball. League official Cleveland (Joyce Van Patton) complains to anyone who will listen about how “goddamn class-action suits” like Whitewood’s are ruining the country, while Yankees coach Roy Turner (Vic Morrow) is as quick to deliver pompously high-minded lectures about competition as he is to slap his own son for disobeying pitching instructions.
The other league parents aren’t much better, excoriating their boys from the stands for making bonehead plays, but otherwise paying little attention to them. The most sympathetic adult in the whole film is the Bears’ coach, the washed-up minor leaguer-turned-pool cleaner Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) — and the first time we see him, he’s pulling a Budweiser out of a cooler in his convertible, pouring some of it out in order to accommodate a few splashes of breakfast bourbon.
3. The Setting
Filmed primarily in and around the San Fernando Valley, The Bad News Bears absolutely nails the look and feel of 1970s suburban Los Angeles, from the spare-but-functional Little League fields where the teams play to the strip-mall arcade where Kelly Leak hustles adults at air hockey. And the preseason meeting scene, in which the parents show up in suits and cocktail dresses for a gathering at the local Pizza Hut, may be the most accurate portrayal of Seventies suburban banality ever filmed.
4. The Games
The members of the Bears play baseball the way that, well, kids play baseball — they stumble over grounders, run in on fly balls that drop behind them, and throw to the wrong base. You really do believe that the team is bad enough at the beginning of the season to be crushed 26-0 by the better-drilled Yankees; still, though the opposing team (whose name is no coincidence) execute the proper fundamentals, they do occasionally make mental mistakes of the sort that you’re prone to when you’re an easily-distracted 12 year-old. So it’s not inconceivable that an improved Bears squad could eventually battle them down to the last out of the championship game.
5. The (Anti-) Heroes
The Bears go from abject to losers to championship contenders because of three figures: Buttermaker, who gets the rag-tag team of misfits to believe in themselves; Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O’Neal), the tough-talking, iron-armed tomboy and the team’s starting pitcher; and Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a Harley-riding juvenile delinquent who becomes the most feared hitter in the lineup. But none of them are in it “for the love of the game” — all three, in fact, are damaged individuals who have ulterior motives for being part of the team: Buttermaker to make some extra cash, Amanda to bring her former father figure back into her life, and Kelly to piss off Roy Turner, who keeps hassling him about loitering around the ballpark.
Nor do any of them possess the sort of transformative super-human powers that pollute the plots of so many baseball films. Amanda throws a mean curve, but she also cheats by throwing a spitball and is prone to arm trouble; Kelly is a great player, but it’s not like he’s knocking the ball out of the park with every at-bat; Buttermaker’s often too drunk to make it through practice, and his attempt at a big motivational speech during the championship game falls flat when the kids realize he’s acting like just as much of an asshole as the coach in the opposite dugout.
But all of that’s exactly what makes their characters (and the film) so great. They’re not one-dimensional figures with skills, personalities or motivations plucked straight from the Baseball Screenwriting 101 cliché bin. They’re complex, unpredictable and occasionally maddening — y’know, kinda like baseball itself.
6. The Complete Absence of Magic or Sentimentality
Remember that scene in The Natural where Roy Hobbs hits a gargantuan, explosive slow-motion homer into the stadium lights? Or the slo-mo catch of the line drive that ends Angels in the Outfield? Or, you know, that whole middle-aged male wish-fulfillment fantasy that takes place out in Field of Dreams‘ magical cornfield? You won’t find any of that crap here, pal. The closest thing to “magical realism” that The Bad News Bears ever gets is when it’s revealed that the chronically shy Lupus somehow knows how to make a “superb” gin martini. (Runner-up: When Buttermaker and 10 kids are jammed into a convertible with a smashed-in windshield and a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam on the floor, and there are miraculously no cops around to pull them over.) Which is not to say there aren’t several brutally effective emotional moments in the film, like the hearbreaking scene when Amanda tries to re-set Buttermaker up with her mother, only to have him coldly rebuff the notion; it’s just that the filmmakers never egregiously milk them for all they’re worth.
7. The Acting
Though ostensibly a kids’ film, Richie’s movie is closer in tone and spirit to such classic 1970s anti-hero-oriented ensemble flicks as M.A.S.H. and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — as opposed to, say, such slick 1970s kids fare as The Apple Dumpling Gang or Escape to Witch Mountain. As such, the characters develop in subtle, believable ways, but they’re still basically the same people by the end of film that they were at the beginning. What makes it all work is the talent of the ensemble; everyone from Matthau (whose hangdog magnificence is truly something to behold) down to brothers Jose and Miguel Aguilar (who play the tiny, non-English-speaking Mexican members of the Bears) is brilliantly cast and plays their part to perfection.
8. The Beer
Throughout the film, Buttermaker is seen drinking seven different kinds of beer: Budweiser, Mickey’s malt liquor, Miller High Life, Schlitz, Coors, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Lucky Lager. This isn’t done for product placement — a concept that hadn’t been fully developed or implemented by the time the film was made — but because the coach is the kind of guy who just grabs whatever case of beer happens to be on sale down at the local liquor store. Not only does Buttermaker’s enthusiastic consumption of a wide variety of budget-friendly adult beverages lend the film an additional sense of gritty realism, but it makes Bears excellent drinking game fodder. Sorry, but despite the sub-plot about Jobu’s rum, Major League just isn’t gonna get you there.
9. The Ending
SPOILER ALERT: The Bears don’t win the championship, which seems to contravene the biggest unwritten rule of baseball cinema: The team we’ve been following in the film has to win it all. But that’s how it goes in real life, right? Despite all your guts and effort and best intentions, sometimes you still get beat by a better team. But hey, at least you can still chuck your second-place trophy at ’em, tell ’em where to stick their first-place prize, and celebrate the season’s end by dousing your teammates with Lucky Lager. Buttermaker would’ve wanted it that way.