Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Original Bad News Bears

Tatum O'Neal and Walter Matthau.
Time has been kind to The Bad News Bears, a 1976 baseball comedy pairing a grumpy Walter Matthau with a bunch of misfit kids. The film sparked a minor controversy when originally released due to several of the youths spewing profanity. In hindsight, the language is less harsh than it once seemed and the humor less broad. That allows the viewer to focus on director Michael Ritchie's delight in going behind the scenes of one of America's most revered institutions: Little League baseball.

The film opens with attorney Bob Whitewood having won a lawsuit that forces an ultra-competitive youth baseball league to add a seventh team composed of less skilled "athletes"--such as Whitewood's son. The attorney pays Morris Buttermaker, a swimming pool cleaner and washed-up minor league baseball player, to coach the team. Initially, Buttermaker (Matthau) is content to regale the boys with tales such as when he struck out Ted Williams in spring training. However, when the league's best team embarrasses the Bears in their first game (26-0), Buttermaker realizes his team can only gain self-respect by winning.

Jackie Earle Haley as Kelly.
He recruits Amanda Whurlizer (Tatum O'Neal), a hard-throwing 11-year-old pitcher and daughter of one of his ex-girlfriends. Amanda plays a key role in gaining the services of Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a Harley-riding troublemaker who is also "the best athlete in the area." With Amanda and Kelly leading the way, the Bears start to gel as a team and begin winning. But are Buttermaker and the Bears championship material?

Much of the humor in The Bad News Bears is derived from the beer-guzzling Buttermaker's interactions with his motley group of kids. There are some stereotypes, to be sure, such as the overweight catcher who devours chocolate bars in their wrappers because he needs "energy." And it's no surprise when the team's worst player makes an incredible catch during the big game.

Still, director Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Burt's son) capture revealing moments that ring with truth: the coach so obsessed with winning that he slaps his son, the tough outsider finding joy in the camaraderie with his teammates, the understanding mother, and even Buttermaker, who realizes he has pushed his team too hard. Ritchie also delights in exploring the spectacle behind the game, as he did in Smile, his 1975 satire on beauty pageants. In The Bad News Bears, we're treated to a high school band playing before the first game, Buttermaker's challenge with acquiring a sponsor for the uniforms, and a funny, realistic trophy presentation.

The Bears' team photo.
Walter Matthau has a grand time in a role that fits him like a glove. He and Tatum O'Neal, fresh off her Oscar win for Paper Moon (1973), have an easygoing, natural relationship. In general, all the young actors acquit themselves nicely (and yes, that's Brandon Cruz from TV's The Courtship of Eddie's Father as a rival pitcher).

The Bad News Bears was the tenth highest-grossing movie of 1976. It spawned two sequels: The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) with William Devane and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978) with Tony Curtis. Some of the original's young cast, such as Jackie Earle Haley, appear in all three films. Jack Warden played Morris Buttermaker on the 1979-80 TV series The Bad News Bears. Billy Bob Thorton starred in a needless 2005 remake, which got mixed reviews. I recommend sticking with the original.


  1. You brought me back to the no-longer-there movie theatre where I first saw The Bad News Bears. I think I've only seen it once in the intervening years. I never saw any of the remakes. It would be a good one to catch up on. Enjoyed this review very much.

  2. Michael Ritchie deserved more auteur attention for his competition-as-a-metaphor-for America movies. This, Smile, Candidate, Prime Cut(!). Usually an American flag on the horizon.

    1. Ritchie made some fine films in the 1970s, but seems to be largely forgotten today.

  3. I just re-watched this a couple of years ago and you are spot on, it holds up well. It always starts with writing, and directing, both of which as you point our are solid. But it is just a vehicle for the late, great Matthau and a gaggle of talented young actors.

  4. Agreed – this film has aged surprisingly well. I watched it for the first time a couple of years ago and was impressed with Matthau's scenes with the kids, especially Tatum O'Neal.