If you haven’t seen this movie, then it’s a cinch you have at least seen one of the sequels or one of the many imitators. I’m sure there were kid-sports films before “The Bad News Bears,” but I doubt that any of them were as successful or as influential. It had been quite a long time since I saw this, and my memories of it were all mixed up with the sequels, so it was good to go back to the original and be reminded how superior it was.
Walter Matthau plays Morriss Buttermaker, a washed-up ex-minor leaguer who gets tapped to coach a little league team. Turns out the team is made up of all the misfit kids who couldn’t get on the regular teams and are only allowed into the league because one of the dads sued. Buttermaker doesn’t care about any of that at first; he is just doing it for a covert paycheck. As he gets to know the kids, however, he comes to feel the pathos of their losing situation. In what is one of the contradictions of the movie, he helps them reverse their losing streak, partly by coaching them into better players, but mostly by bringing in a couple of ringers. One is a local hooligan, Kelly Leak, played with skinny swagger by Jackie Earle Haley. The other is the daughter of Buttermaker’s ex-girlfriend, a curve-ball throwing 11-year-old played by Tatum O’Neill.
These two put the Bears on the road to the championship, and anyone who finds this unrealistic has obviously never played or coached kids’ sports. It really only takes a couple of good players to make a winning kids’ team. Of course, that leaves the other kids with nothing to do, and that is one issue that surfaces as Buttermaker tries to rectify his desire to win with the need to make sure the kids get a chance to enjoy playing ball. This is a perpetual problem in real-life sports, as parents tend to get overly competitive, and “The Bad News Bears” does a pretty decent job exploring that dynamic. Vic Morrow deserves kudos for his portrayal of Coach Turner of the rival Yankees. Rather than simply playing the villain, he is very realistic as an overly-competitive coach and dad. In fact, the movie is pretty dead-on with its portrayal of screaming Little League parents. As for Walter Matthau, his bravura portrayal of surly alcoholic Buttermaker is what makes this movie worthwhile.
To my taste, the portrayal of the kids in this movie is somewhat hit or miss. Much has been made of Tatum O’Neal’s performance, and everybody these days wants to drop Jackie Earle Haley’s name, but I found their characters to be overly sassy and annoying. Actually, Chris Barnes’s bellicose little Tanner Boyle character was a lot more fun. His classic line, “All we got on this team are a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron!” could actually serve as a plot synopsis for this film.
In spite of a few punky kids and a formulaic plot, “The Bad News Bears” ends the day as it began it, delivering a good time. Foul-mouthed kids, the brilliant Walter Matthau, hey, hand me a hot dog and a beer and let’s watch this sucker again!
3.5 stars out of 5