There seem to be three acceptable answers when someone is asked "What is your favorite baseball movie?" You are allowed to say Bull Durham, Field of Dreams or The Natural. Some people will say Major League, but those people are usually dismissed as someone who never grew up. But every time some one asks that question, you can generally predict that the answer that is going to come back is one of those three movies.
I'm here to tell you that they're all wrong. The greatest baseball movie ever made is the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears.
When I was starting to play organized baseball as a kid, my team's manager told us in no uncertain terms that we were not supposed to behave like "The Bad News Bears." I had no idea what he was talking about because I hadn't seen the movie. I wasn't allowed to watch PG movies yet. There's a certain irony in that statement, because when they remade the movie a few years ago, they had to make some major changes because the original movie would have gotten a straight R today. But I would eventually see the film and find out what he meant.
You know that this is going to be unlike any baseball movie you've ever seen before in the very first scene. Coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) pours out his beer can and fills it up with Jim Beam. As if that makes it any better. But while the film is hard and cynical, it's also a sentimental look what baseball is all about. Ultimately, the message of the film is that baseball is a game for children and that we all lose something when we lose sight of that. It also speaks to the power of baseball to bring a broken family back together.
I'm going to assume that most of you have seen the film and if you haven't, it's on Netflix for you to watch any time. Or you can rent it cheap. But a quick summary of the plot is that Buttermaker, a broken-down alcoholic ex-minor leaguer gets hired to manage a little league team full of outcasts. It's the group of misfits from diverse backgrounds who come together and achieve something special by working together. That's a movie cliché today, but back in 1976 it was still uncommon enough to seem somewhat fresh. And while you would see it in war movies a lot, it hadn't been done much in baseball movies before then.
Of course, this setup has been done in Bull Durham, Major League, A League Of Their Own and probably a dozen other baseball movies since then. But no one ever did it as well as The Bad News Bears. This team has nothing in common expect that they all want to play baseball. In fact, the team shortstop Tanner Boyle (Chris Barnes) sums up the team's diversity in a famous quote that's so nasty and full of slurs that I can only quote the last part of it: "and a booger-eating moron." If you don't know it, look it up. Better yet, watch the movie.
Walter Matthau was a big star when the movie came out and he plays a part he was already pretty familiar with: a curmudgeon who secretly has a soft heart. While he initially just takes the job for a check (and maybe for some free child labor for his pool cleaning business), he quickly changes his tune when he sees the kids humiliated in the first game. After that, Buttermaker realizes that he likes these kids after all, since they're all pretty much losers like himself. Among the acts he takes to cheer up the team, he makes up a story about Hank Aaron to talk Ahmed (Erin Blunt) out of a tree where he's hiding in shame. In fact, Buttermaker becomes the only sympathetic adult in the entire movie, or at least until the Bears start to win.
Did I mention that Buttermaker had previously run out on a girlfriend who had a daughter? That's important to know.
What do you do with a ten-year old girl who has already won an Academy Award? Hollywood certainly had no clue with what to do with Tatum O'Neal. After winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Paper Moon, O'Neal wouldn't work in a film for three more years. The Bad News Bears is O'Neal's first film after Paper Moon and she's absolutely terrific, even better than she was as a precocious child con artist in Paper Moon. Here she plays a young girl entering puberty when a man who used to date her mother shows up and asks her to play baseball again. The relationship between Matthau and O'Neal provides the emotional heart of the movie. The two walk a dance around each other: Buttermaker is not Amanda Whurlitzer's father, but he's the closest thing she's ever had to one and she still resents him for walking out on her and her mother. At one point, Amanda asks Buttermaker, "Who the hell do you think you are?" and Buttermaker shoots back: "Your goddamn manager, that's who." Of course, we all know that really, Buttermaker is her father even if they aren't technically related. But neither one is willing to admit that.
Later in the film when Amanda starts to press the issue, Buttermaker rejects her by tossing a beer in her face. O'Neal's reaction is wonderful. She tells Buttermaker off and walks away as nonchalantly as she can, trying to show Buttermaker that he hasn't hurt her. Only when she's by herself out on the diamond does she start to cry. Then it cuts to a shot of Buttermaker alone in the dugout drinking the rest of his beer and shedding a silent tear of his own.
The plot of Amanda pitching for the Bears is the film's hook. In 1976, acceptance of women competing in team sports at all wasn't much more than a decade old (if that) and the idea of girls playing on teams with boys was practically revolutionary. O'Neal's presence in the film is more a reflection of a revolution in women's sports than an inspiration of one, but the film's idea that a girl could not only play with the boys but even be better than all of them pre-dates Mo'ne Davis by almost 40 years. (By the way, as terrific an actor the 13-year-old O'Neal was, her pitching motion was atrocious. One of the few flaws of the film.) Sure, it's what got the pitch sold in a meeting with a studio. But turning the film into a father/daughter movie instead of a father/son one gives it an emotional power that it might not otherwise have had. Maybe I'm just saying that because I have a daughter and not a son, but I thought that before I became a dad. We'd seen dads play ball with sons. We hadn't seen them play with their daughters in the movies before.
I could talk about Jackie Earl Haley's Kelly Leak character, the biker kid who joins the team in an act of delinquent defiance and provides the Bears with someone who can hit, but I'd rather talk about Tanner, the little kid with the foul mouth and a Napoleon complex. Tanner has several of the best lines in the movie and they're all profane. His personality is summed up at the first practice after the embarrassing first game. The kids at school are picking on the Bears and Tanner shows up with cuts on his face. Tanner's teammates explain that he had gotten in a fight and when Buttermaker asks with whom, the team sabermetrician-to-be Alfred Ogilvie (Alfred W. Lutter) explains "The seventh grade." But when asked if he wants to quit, Tanner finally speaks: "God no. I want to play ball." (Incidentally, Ogilvie is currently an assistant GM with Oakland or Houston, I have no doubt, running their databases.)
While Tanner makes his distain for his teammates known every chance he gets, he sticks up for the "booger-eating moron" Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith) when two kids from the Yankees pick on him. Tanner ends up getting dumped in a trash can, but he earns Lupus' gratitude and respect.
Tanner also embodies the language of the film, which is very profane. But I was a kid about the same age as the Bears players around the same time, and that is pretty close to how we talked, at least when grown ups weren't around. (We'd never talk that way if an adult was present, although maybe if that adult was Walter Matthau.) The Billy Bob Thornton remake had to change most of that to avoid an R-rating, and in doing so, it loses much of the authenticity the original had. Or maybe kids today don't swear like sailors when I'm not around. I always assumed they did.
With the additions of Amanda and Kelly, as well as a couple of the original members of the team improving from worthless to average, the Bears start to win. It's then that Buttermaker undergoes another personality transformation. Now he becomes a competitive monster, relying on Kelly and Amanda and making sure that the other players stay out of their way.
When the other players complain about the changes and start a fight with Kelly, Buttermaker shouts "We're in the championship! Isn't that what you wanted? Now behave yourselves and act like men."
The statement drips with irony and the audience knows it. The kids never wanted to play in the championship. They simply wanted to play. And as far as acting like men, none of them are. Amanda aside, they're all still boys playing a boy's game. All of the adults have forgotten this.
I won't spoil the end for those who haven't seen it, but it's safe to say that Buttermaker learns the error of his ways. The sad part is that it's clear that he's the only adult who has.
As far as the 2005 remake starring Billy Bob Thornton goes, the less said about it the better. It's not a terrible movie, but the edges on it are all smoothed out. Thornton is good but the kids, so vibrantly written in the original, become stock movie characters. Cardboard cutouts of the original Bears players. They didn't even bother to try to find an actress who could handle Tatum O'Neal's part, so they cast a girl who played baseball instead. Sure, she looks better on the mound, but a lot worse in every other respect. See it if you're curious, but you'll learn more about the sad state of Hollywood than you will about the role of sport in society.
I hope you've come to appreciate the The Bad News Bears a little more after reading this and maybe you've been inspired to watch the film again. And if you don't think I'm right about this being the greatest baseball movie of all time, then I'd just like to quote Tanner Boyle for you one last time.
"Hey Yankees! You can take your apology and your trophy and shove it straight up your ass!"
Please use this space to discuss your favorite baseball movie of all time. It doesn't have to be The Bad News Bears because everyone has a right to be wrong. Also, there are a lot of good candidates for the second-best baseball film of all time.