“It’s not whether you win or lose, but it’s how you play the game.”
That’s what they always kept telling me when I was playing little league all those years ago. Although I didn’t believe it then, it is true and nowhere is it better demonstrated in the world of baseball films than in the 1976 little league flick The Bad News Bears. Disguised as a kids’ movie, the film makes a point about parents and adults living their own fantasies through their children, regardless of what the kid’s like. Political messages aren’t the only draw to the film which is also an amusing slapstick comedy, triumph of the underdog flick and a star vehicle for Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal (who had just recently become the youngest Oscar winner in history for her performance in Paper Moon).
Matthau plays former minor league ballplayer Morris Buttermaker, who now makes his living cleaning swimming pools. When the liberal councilman Whitewood (Ben Piazza) files a suit against the upscale North Valley Little League allowing a team of misfit youngsters called the Bears a chance to play, he hires Buttermaker to coach. The kids ball playing skills are as bad as their mouths and it is obvious after the first game—in which they lose 26-0 without even finishing half an inning—that it is going to be a very long season that will drain what little self-confidence the kids had to begin with.
Buttermaker sees a chance to improve the team by recruiting Amanda Whurlitzer (O’Neal), the daughter of his former lady friend who just so happens to have a nasty curveball. With Amanda’s pitching—actually done by a couple of male stand-ins because O’Neal didn’t have the stuff in real life—the Bears are able to keep it close, but they still need to figure out how to score some runs if they want to win a game or two. Enter Kelly Leak (“That dude is a baaaad mutha”) a local cigarette smoking, Harley Davidson riding hoodlum who just so happens to be the best athlete in the area. Once Kelly joins the team, the Bears start climbing the standings and Buttermaker sees an opportunity for his team to prove everyone wrong and win the championship. In true underdog movie fashion, the championship game is against the Yankees, the same team that put the 26-run whooping on the Bears on opening day.
The championship game brings out the worst in the parents. Even the liberal councilman that sued the league to give every kid a chance to play balks at Buttermaker’s decision to give each of his players some playing time in the final game. The worst offender is the Yankees head coach Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), who becomes so obsessed with winning that he gives his pitcher (and son) a slapping in front of dozens of spectators for not following instructions (“But dad, I wanted to strike him out”). The kid’s revenge is one of the best scenes in the movie, as he fields a ground ball to the mound and refuses to give up the ball, allowing an inside-the-park homerun. There’s hardly a more poignant moment in baseball films as when he then silently walks off the field, dropping the ball at his father’s feet.
Before he falls victim to the same selfish competitiveness as Turner, Buttermaker realizes the error of his ways and allows the Bears’ bench-warmers to take the field. The film’s main point is summed up in a conversation between the oft-teased Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith) and Buttermaker:
“Mr. Buttermaker, I don’t know about you but I want to win, so don’t send me in.”
“Listen Lupus, you didn’t come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did you? Then get your ass out there and do the best you can.”
When Lupus makes the heroic catch, it’s a great moment. Not just because it’s heroic, but because it is as surprising to us as a film audience as it would if we were sitting on the bleachers.
The Bears do lose the championship game, but not without winning back a little respect and a lot of self-confidence. The Yankees look stoic and spiritless holding their first place trophy, but when the Bears throw back the second place trophy, proclaiming “Wait til next year”, we see what true winners look like.
It’s fitting that this film was released in 1976, the same year that the underdog drama Rocky took home the Oscar for best picture. Both films feature underdogs coming up just short in their pursuit of a championship, but both learning profound life lessons along the way.
As needed, the movie provides us with plenty of quirky little league players. There is the foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Tanner Boyle (Chris Barnes), the over-eating, psycho-analyzed catcher Engelberg (Gary Lee Cavagnaro), the stat-addict Ogilvie (Alfred W. Lutter) and the sensitive kid who dreams of growing up to be the next Hank Aaron, Ahmad Abdul Rahim (Erin Blunt). There’s a great scene between Blunt and Matthau, when the coach convinces his outfielder (who has tore off his uniform and climbed in a tree) to keep playing by telling him about the 42 errors Aaron made in his first year of Sandlot ball.
The child actors were not cast for their baseball skills, quite the opposite actually. Director Ritchie secretly looked for those kids with lesser skills, thus making the many inept plays seem real. In contrast, the actors hired to play the opposing Yankees were chosen for their ball-playing skills, allowing for an immediate contrast. That wasn’t the only trick the filmmakers used. They also built the little league field slightly larger than normal so the older actors (such as the 13-year-old O’Neal and the 14-year-old Jackie Earl Haley) would not look too big for their characters’ britches.
The role of the washed-up, alcoholic former ball-player turned little league coach was a perfect fit for Walter Matthau, who was a life-long fan of the sport and reportedly even used to coach some when he was a teenager. Add to that that few actors can play a better comical drunk than Matthau.
The Bad News Bears is a lot of fun and still one of the most enjoyable of all baseball films. It was one of the biggest hits of 1976, and remains one of the highest grossing baseball films to date. As a Seattle Mariners fan in the middle of a pennant race with the Oakland Athletics, what does this film mean to me?
“Bad news for the Athletics”
I give it an A-.