When this generation thinks of The Bad News Bears, they remember the subpar 2005 comedy rather than the impressive 1976 original. While both have garnered a cult reputation, the Walter Matthau comedy managed to scrutinize competition in American culture while maintaining the laughs. Nominated for multiple honors by the American Film Institute, it’s a movie that should be remained as a must-watch for any sports fan.
Set in Southern California, the film opens up after a city councilman (who also happens to be a father and an accomplished attorney) has filed a lawsuit against the local Little League organization for discrimination. The Bad News Bears might be set in the 1970’s, but the storyline already sounds a lot like the litigious nature of people today. He’s angry that his son, Toby, and many other athletically challenged kids aren’t able to participate simply because they aren’t considered the traditional players.
Naturally, the league quickly agrees to form “The Bears,” a team dedicated to all of the players initially left out. It’s an easy solution that beats heading to court or seeing the organization shell out any money. However, things don’t go as smoothly as planned when Bob Whitewood (the father), approaches Morris Buttermaker to coach the team. Not only is his name awful, but he’s a washed up minor league player who spends his days cleaning pools and suffering from alcoholism. From the get-go, it’s clear he’s the underdog of this story who will rediscover his passion for baseball through a group of scrappy kids. Sure, the story has been told many times but this film is from the 1976 so it gets a break for a generic backstory.
With his rag tag team of kids, Buttermaker is unable to squeak out a victory in the first game. It doesn’t help that all of the other teams and parents don’t respect the Bears in any way, shape, or form. The embarrassing loss looms over the kids heads and understandably they all want to quit. It would be different if they managed to get a hit or two, but they were forced to forfeit without even getting a chance to hit once their rival team manages to score twenty-six times in the opening inning.
Realizing how downtrodden the kids are, the coach finally steps up and refuses to accept their decision to quit. Despite his rousing speech, no one seems all that effected so he simply threatens them to get back on the field. While they all seem wary of his change of attitude, they do his bidding and Buttermake does actually teach them how to play. Of course, they don’t become overnight sensations but the Bears do manage to hit the ball in their next game despite still losing.
Like any kind of movie about a group of underdogs, The Bad News Bears quickly enlists a new set of unlikely heroes to join the team. A talented but sassy pitcher, Amanda, is welcomed quickly by the team as well as local bad boy Kelly Leak. In the meantime, the other kids begin to learn the concept of being a team compared to being one player. They all lose and win together, something that instills them with a sense of loyalty and camaraderie.
Unfortunately, everything goes downhill quickly once the team turns their play around and begins to win. Buttermaker becomes too competitive, urging Kelly and Amanda to put themselves over the need of the team. While they make it all the way to the championship, everyone seems demoralized and angry with one another. Not to mention Buttermaker, the adult in this situation, has completely overlooked the dangers of pushing the kids too hard in favor of a win. However, when their rival Yankees begin to show the signs of what happens when you make a game less about fun and more about winning does he realize his mistake. Quickly he benches the starters so the benchwarmers can get in even though it threatens the championship.
It’s something most kids can relate to nowadays considering how competitive team sports have become. Society has conditioned children that they can either win and be successes or get a participation medal to be a failure. It feels like there’s no in-between a lot of the time, which tends to foster a unhealthy competitive attitude growing up.
Weirdly enough, The Bad News Bears reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes strip where the former ends up joining the baseball team. He doesn’t actually have an interest in the sport, but he signs up just because every other boy in his class has. Nevertheless, he tries to make the best of the situation by learning to play from his father as well as enjoying himself. However, he ends up not realizing his team is up at bat and he catches a ball from one of his own teammates. Naturally, the whole team hates him and he winds up feeling dejected for something he just wanted to enjoy. Whatever happened to allowing kids to run around a base without ridiculing them for their athletic shortcomings? There’s a difference between sheltering children to save their self esteem and simply encouraging them to have fun before they have other competitive aspects of life to face.
Thankfully, The Bad News Bears reminds viewers of this when they proudly hold their second place trophy. They’re excited to bounce back next year as well as enjoy each other’s presence. Every professional athlete has said the most important thing about playing a sport is remembering to have fun so that you can truly enjoy the game. It’s a lesson for people to carry in life, about finding something you love and pursuing it.