The Bad News Bears (1976)

Directed by Michael Ritchie

After quite the run of films I had not seen before in this marathon, a Mickey Mantle’s worth (7), I come to a film I have seen more than a few times, and one which I adore. Now, when I was originally amassing the list of films for this Joe DiMaggio hitting streak marathon (56 films), I considered the value of including films I had seen before, as they may not offer much in the way of new experiences. However, one of the main points of inspiration for this marathon was the chance to revisit some of the many films I love featuring baseball, The Bad News Bears included. There is also, I think, value in reconsidering films I have seen before, as I may like them more, or even less, upon further examination; and at the very least, they all offer a very important part of the history of baseball and movies, and withholding them from the experience may have been more a detriment to my overall experience than not.

The Bears are of course famous in baseball movie lore, featuring two sequels (which will be seen soon in this marathon) and a 2005 remake (also on the docket). But the original is near and dear to many baseball movie fans. Featuring a wonderfully drunk and washed up minor-league baseball star, Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), the Bears are a makeshift little league team assembled by a desperate lawyer, Whitewood, who doesn’t have time to coach the misfits himself. Entered into a competitive league, the misfits fail miserably until Buttermaker recruits a curveball throwing beauty queen (Tatum O’Neal) and a chain smoking, motorcycle riding pre-teen (Jackie Earle Haley).

The charm of the film is in the Bears. As far as misfits go, the Bears rule the roost. With elements of every cliché and stereotype imaginable, each player presents us with just enough to root for. Led by O’Neal and Haley, the stars of the team, the Bears are truly dysfunctional, but that is why we love them. They are the underdogs because, sure, they pretty much suck at playing baseball, but they show us something that is often missing in youth athletics in this country, then and now: fun. These kids are competitive as heck, wanting to win more than any other, but where their ability is lacking, their heart and attitude shines through to quite the bullies that are the Yankees and parents of other teams in the league.

Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head when he described the film as “an unblinking, scathing look at competition in American society,” and this is what I unraveled upon this latest viewing. Having not seen the film in some time, my enjoyment of the film previously came out of the awesome characters, hilarious jokes and moments, and the overall fun nature of the film. However, seeing it again with my more analytical mind (for better or for worse), I was really taken at just how awful the adults came across in this film, insulting the children and pushing them on for their own glory, not the betterment of the team or individual development. The Bears stunk. Then they weren’t so bad because Buttermaker cared about these kids and their development. But once they legitimately got good, everything changed for Buttermaker.

Losing the pureness of the game of baseball, and the purpose of youth athletics, Buttermaker sours the team as they clash with another win hungry, glory hungry coach in the other dugout. That championship game is truly brilliant writing and filmmaking. The kids win out and show the adults just what competitive spirit, good sportsmanship, and winning attitude are all about. The hollow cheers from the victors earlier in the film become genuine, and the respect between kids truly wins the film. I’m not sure whether I should really be that surprised at how great this film is, having held it in high regard before, but after this viewing, I truly see it as a remarkable entry in the baseball movie catalog. Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal and Jackie Earle Haley all shine. Tanner and Lupus are easily my favorite though.

**** – Favorite


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