Grab A Bat, Punk: THE BAD NEWS BEARS And The Team Spirit Of Misfits
In honor of Sausage Party, which you can buy tickets for here, we’re launching a week of articles focused on raunchy films in genres and formats typically reserved for youngsters.
It’s the last inning of the title game between the Yankees and the Bears. The score is tied, and the Bears could win the pennant. Runty, pathologically shy, booger-eating spaz Timmy Lupus manages to catch the ball in the outfield, and he cannot fucking believe it. He gazes into his mitt with wonder. Nobody knew he could do it — least of all him. His teammates run to him as Georges Bizet’s Carmen plays. This might be the most triumphant, emotional moment in the history of sports cinema. The Bad News Bears is, at least on its surface, a kids’ movie about baseball. But it’s not the kind of baseball film we’re used to — it’s not steeped in nostalgia, and it’s definitely not a sentimental story about an enchanted cornfield where the ghosts of America’s best ballplayers roam for Kevin Costner’s pleasure. The Bad News Bears is about a bunch of booger-eating misfits, managed by Coach Morris Buttermaker, the biggest fuck-up of them all — a barely functioning alcoholic and third-rate ballplayer who cleans pools and throws beer at kids. It’s silly and profane, and yet it’s one of the most profound and profoundly moving comedies ever made.
You couldn’t make this movie now, and it’s a wonder it got made then. Richard Linklater technically remade it, but David Pollock (who played Rudi Stein) put it best when he said: “I haven’t watched the whole thing, but my impression was that it was more a sequel of Bad Santa than The Bad News Bears.” In the 1976 original, 12-year-old Tatum O’Neal rides with 14-year-old Jackie Earle Haley on the back of his motorcycle. The whole team cruises with smoking-and-drinking Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) in his Cadillac convertible with a cracked windshield, without seat belts or a trunk lid. While other Little League teams have sponsors like Pizza Hut and Denny’s, theirs is Chico’s Bail Bonds. Buttermaker lounges as the kids clean a pool for him, and little Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith) fixes him a martini. Buttermaker passes out on the pitcher’s mound surrounded by beer cans during practice — keeping the bases loaded, so to speak.
As irresponsible as Buttermaker might be, the other adults behave worse. They’re hypocrites or bullies, uninvolved in their children’s lives. Bob Whitewood (Ben Piazza) is the city councilman who sued the North Valley League so they’d create a new team his kid could join, but he abandons the Bears as soon as they get started, hiring Buttermaker to manage and coach in his place. When he realizes how awful the Bears are — and how bad they might make him look — Whitewood tries to shut them down. And Coach Roy Turner (Vic Morrow) and Cleveland (Joyce Van Patten) act like a kids’ game is a matter of life and death. Cool Kelly Leak (Haley) joins the League just to spite Turner after he yelled at Kelly for hanging around the field and grabbed his arm too hard. During the title game, Turner’s pep talk to the Yankees includes a bogus but chilling warning that, if they lose the game, it’ll haunt them for the rest of their lives. You can see it in the way the kids look at these adults — they see their flaws with more clarity than they do.
Joyce Van Patten said director Michael Ritchie was the hero of the film — he managed to get incredible and authentic performances out of these kids even though most had no prior acting experience. But if Ritchie was the hero, Walter Matthau was the heart, the morale booster. And somehow, Matthau was the thirdchoice to play Morris Buttermaker. First came Steve McQueen, then Warren Beatty. But Matthau is kindly curmudgeon Buttermaker, and it’s weird to think there was ever another option. There was chemistry between the kids and Walter Matthau in real life, and it’s reflected in their relationship onscreen with Buttermaker. He took the kids out for BBQ with Jack Lemmon, he let them sip his beer every once in a while, and when production wrapped, he gave them all inscribed silver keychains from Tiffany’s.
The Bad News Bears is about a team of misfits, but it’s also a buddy movie about Buttermaker and Amanda Whurlitzer (O’Neal), his ex-girlfriend’s daughter. He taught her how to pitch when she was 9 years old, and he convinces her to join the team and help the floundering Bears. Screenwriter Bill Lancaster (who also wrote The Thing) based Buttermaker on his father Burt Lancaster, and he modeled Amanda after himself. The relationship is singular, complicated, never creepy, equal parts father-daughter bond and friendship. And maybe it was a little bit real. Tatum O’Neal said that Walter Matthau visited her in the hospital after she was in a car accident when she was fifteen. Matthau told her: “Kid, I just had to come in and see that you were all right.”
Maybe the movie’s most controversial message that it’s okay to lose. Ritchie shot two endings — one where the Bears win the title game, another where they lose. Test audiences, and the kids themselves, agreed that the ending where they lost was better, more authentic. Buttermaker watches Roy Turner hit his son Joey over a bad pitch, and Buttermaker realizes how wrong he’s been in his determination to win above all else. He does not want to go down Turner’s dark path. He puts his four worst players in the game when they’re tied with the Yankees for the pennant. “Everyone on my team gets a chance to play,” he explains. Lupus argues, and Buttermaker responds: “You didn’t come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did you? Get your ass out there and do the best you can.” When they lose, the kids celebrate by drinking a beer with Buttermaker. Each kid embarks on their own hero’s journey — they are the littlest, unlikeliest of heroes. This film is Rocky’s spastic kid brother, another film where the protagonist doesn’t win, but still comes out a hero because he took his best shot. Even the Yankees have to admit to the Bears: “We still don’t think you’re all that good a baseball team — but you got guts.”
The Bears’ roster includes a few indistinguishable Valley towheads, a black Muslim boy, two Mexican boys who don’t speak English, a Jewish boy, a fat kid, a few runts, and a girl. In a rant that remains the most offensive moment of the movie, Tanner Boyle (Chris Barnes) uses slurs to describe the teammates he deems “undesirable,” but Ogilvie (Alfred Lutter) chastens him: “Tanner, I think you should be reminded from time to time that you’re one of the few people on this team who’s not a [redacted]. So you better cool it, or we may be disposed to beat the crap out of you.” But Tanner has a moment of redemption. After telling Lupus he doesn’t want to sit next to him at the snack shack, Joey Turner (Brandon Cruz) and another Yankees player show up and pour ketchup in Lupus’s baseball cap. Tanner realizes that this is bullshit, and he shoves a burrito in Joey’s face, and gets dumped in a trashcan. Lupus thanks him, saying no one ever stuck up for him before, and there’s a change in Tanner’s expression, a sudden understanding. This movie is about acceptance of others, of yourself. It’s about our capacity to embrace differences, and how underdogs should stick together. Like Buttermaker said: “All I know is, when we win a game, it’s a team win. When we lose a game, it’s a team loss.”
It’s been 40 years since the release of The Bad News Bears, and it’s time to recognize its brilliance and listen to its message. The Bad News Bears represents the American dream at its best, its Platonic ideal. It asks us who we are, and who we want to be. We can choose to be as joyless and cruel as Roy Turner or as hypocritical as Bob Whitewood, just for the sake of winning, of maintaining an image. But maybe it’s better to be like the Bears, to be one of the misfits. Maybe it’s okay to be openly a mess, to screw up, to lose, as long as you tried and you had guts and you were good to the people you care about. Buttermaker and the Bears kept their integrity, they questioned authority, they gave the underdog a shot. And they had a blast doing it.