This post features spoilers for The Bad News Bears. If, somehow, you are a baseball fan in 2016 who has not seen this movie in its entirety, stop reading this post now and watch this movie immediately.
As the trade deadline approaches, teams become buyers or sellers. The push for October baseball becomes the mindset for a limited group of teams. The goal is to win. The Cubs in particular are trying to shed that “lovable loser” image. Some teams find themselves hunting for that Wild Card spot. Time will tell if we have that Cinderella story.
This summer The Bad News Bears turns 40. Baseball’s greatest “lovable loser” film, it played up to the underdog theme. It’s cliche in America cinema to combine the underdog story with sports film. The 1970s gave us plenty of these films. Be it Rocky, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, to even my personal favorite Slap Shot, they all embrace the underdog role. To a slight extent The Longest Yard had an underdog story line. It was more apparent in The Bad News Bears.
What made The Bad News Bears great was that the protagonists were all losers. These are the kids who were riding the pine in the pre-participation trophy, everyone gets a turn 1970s. No team in the ultra competitive San Fernando Valley league wanted them. Their coach is a washed up minor league pitcher turned alcoholic pool cleaner. Their “trade deadline” acquisition who turned into their team’s Yoenis Cespedes is a Marlboro smoking, dirt bike riding, juvenile delinquent. To make them even more unpopular, their ace hurler is a girl with more tricks than Gaylord Perry.
Despite the issues, be it a lack of baseball skill or their personal character flaws, they are an endearing group to the audience. Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) may have some punk qualities, but he still exhibits childlike qualities and shows vulnerability to his teammates. Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) is a terrible person, who only coached this team for money, yet, he opens himself to these kids and becomes a reluctant role model to them. This kind of character development gives the audience a reason to sympathize and care.
Youth baseball has a way of developing character. Stats point out how cruel and failure prone we are as humans. Having to collect yourself after botching a groundball that put the winning run on base tells a lot on how you use that character building. The way the Bears learn to use these failures as a motivation to grow and win helps drive their on screen development.
The film was written by Bill Lancaster, son of noted actor, Burt Lancaster. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he played and experienced failure on those same youth baseball diamonds the movie was filmed. Updating his failures to the 1976, he gave audiences the insight of how competitive youth sports were becoming. That use of life experiences gave it such an authentic feel. It’s the same reason Slap Shot had such a genuine feel, it was written off of real life experiences.
The writing and keeping true to the realism helped make it a classic. Only in the 1970s could you have a comedic film about youth sports featuring a coach drinking Miller High Life in the dugout and kids spewing racial slurs. You could never get away with that today. You saw a watered down version of it in the 2005 remake that lacked the same punch.
A very NSFW language clip below.
Even though the film is an underdog story, it does not fall victim to the cliched endings that almost all of those films have. The Bears lose the title. They think they were screwed by a bad call but in the end it does not matter. They proved they could compete, they proved their worth. Moral victories sound hallow, but these kids and Coach Buttermaker are better than when they started. That’s more real than them winning a baseball game.
The film puts youth sports on trial. This league only wanted the best, having that extra team filled with cast offs lowered the league’s caliber. This elitist attitude goes against the mere idea of recreational leagues. All kids should be allowed to play baseball, regardless of initial ability. The Bears were the rogue team, doing things their way. They represented what youth baseball needs to be about, fun and development. They became the ideal example to the audience.
Given the unique cast of characters, an easy to follow story and great performances from the cast, this movie went on to be a huge hit. Made for $9 million dollars, it grossed nearly five times that at the box office. It was one of the top-grossing films for 1976. To this day, the film still holds up. More importantly, this is still the best baseball film due to its honest feel and story that resonates with audiences.