SPORTS FILM REVIEW – “The Bad News Bears” (1976)

It happens every year about this time.  Deep into the heart of winter I’m missing baseball terribly.  I only have a 75 day wait until MLB’s opening day, ugh.

My solution?   Watch a baseball film to bring me back to the summertime and the feeling of playing ball again when I was a kid.

You remember: your Dad was on the other side of the backyard throwing you pop-ups & grounders.  There was a smell of fresh cut grass in the air and your favorite team was broadcast on the am/fm radio…

Well, this year, I chose the original “The Bad News Bears” (1976) to help me get my fix.

I’ll admit this is not the most respectable film I could have chosen.  “The Natural”, “Field of Dreams”, and “Bull Durham” are all fine baseball films which carry that mystique of playing ball that I love.

But, no other film to me captures that feeling of being a kid again in the summertime with our national pastime than the original “The Bad News Bears”.

One of the ways this film evokes that specific feeling of youth and memories of baseball for me is because it lacks the usual filmmaking lip gloss.

It has a gritty realistic style, where the cameras were on the ground field level resulting in one feeling as if they were there at that exact moment.

More importantly, almost every scene is set out of doors and with a baseball diamond in the frame.

It certainly isn’t Walter Matthau’s pouty mug that brings me back to that favorable time.  His character, Coach Morris Buttermaker, is a cantankerous alcoholic & former minor-leaguer hired to manage a ball team (the “Bears”) comprised of young boys who basically stink.  Buttermaker is asked to simply give all these boys a chance to play, a motley crew who had been outcast by the other teams in a super competitive league.  Buttermaker starts out doing it for the money and through a haze of cigarette smoke and beer winds up forfeiting their very first game when the score reaches 0-22, much to the boys’ chagrin.

Eventually, through sharing his stories (both real & made up) with the kids and practicing with them, Buttermaker gets his competitive spirit back and makes the Bears a better team.  He brings in other more skilled players to help the team reach the finals against the best team in the league, the aptly named “Yankees”.

When they do reach the finals, Coach Buttermaker gets whipped up into a competitive frenzy with the opposing team’s coach.  But at one point during the game, he realizes it has gone too far.  After witnessing the other coach slap his son when he doesn’t perform, Buttermaker looks deep into each of his players’ faces.  He understands for the first time the real meaning of it all:  We play ball not for success, but for the love of the game.

This poignancy is often overlooked in this film, which on its surface is crass and raunchy.  The kids, many under 10 years old, often curse & express bigotry.  Coach drinks openly in front of them, and even while driving.  He even has one of the children make him cocktails at his house after using the team to clean his pool.  (Some of this is over the top, most of it very funny.)

But, underneath, this baseball film is like all others that deserve to be watched in times like this: when baseball players are in hibernation and the rest of us yearn for the glory days of our youth.

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