To an entire generation of American kids the William Tell Overture was known only as the theme to the movie The Bad News Bears. Released in 1976, this small budget comedy about a bunch of kids playing little league inspired generations of film makers and ball players alike. It seems almost ironic that a film filled with filthy mouths should be supported with a soundtrack composed completely of classical music.
The film is named in the book American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Quentin Tarantino’s list of top 12 films of all time includes the comedy and, in 2016, Rolling Stone made the argument that The Bad News Bears is the greatest baseball movie of all time. In naming it the 3rd best sports movie of all time in 2015, the magazine captured what made this movie an instant classic.
Made for just $9M, the PG-rated movie compiled $32.2M in box office receipts worldwide. It may have been a kid’s story, following a team of ragtag little leaguers through a summer, but this latchkey generation’s film dealt with real issues: divorce, abandonment, alcoholism and winning at all costs. In true 70s fashion, it did so while giving kids solutions to deal with each issue through their own voice.
In the film, Walter Matthau plays an alcoholic third-rate retired minor leaguer hired by absentee parents who don’t want to coach, but are happy to pay someone else to do it then criticize his work. Throughout the film he faces every generic coaching issue: finding uniform sponsors, motivating players, playing the best athletes vs. letting everyone play and team over winning. He becomes an advocate and teacher for the players while learning to walk the line between mentor and hero. As with all people, he has a human side. That is the side that tells fish tales, drinks too much and, if only for a moment, buys into the winning at all costs mentality that has ruined the sport for more than one child-athlete. In the end, he comes away with just the right balance of, “When we win a game it’s a team win, when we lose a game it’s a team loss,” lines to make his character sympathetic.
Buttermaker, played by Matthau, brings in a few ringers. Cue Tatum O’Neal in her role as the spitball throwing starting pitcher who uses her feminine wiles to convince the town’s star athlete, and resident bad boy, he must be their outfielder.
O’Neal’s character contends with ‘girls can’t play’ at a time when Title IX was being passed into law to allow all girls fair playing opportunities. To a whole generation of little girls, Amanda Whurlizer represented their future. The movie deals with the social issues of girls and boys playing together. In the end we see that when you let kids be kids, everyone wins.
This movie’s script reflects a unique time in American entertainment writing history. It was a time when the problems of the day were addressed from all points of view – young and old. Kids were seen as capable of intellectualizing what was happening in the world around them and treated as such. In this film there was no political correctness, either in the message or the response. There was also no cruelty. Were the situations presented in politically incorrect ways? You bet. But, as fast as you could find a person out of line, you would witness someone putting them back in their place about it.
The best example of this is how the movie handles racism. The loudmouthed player Tanner starts the film complaining, “All we got on this team are a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron!”
To this his teammate Oglivie responds: “Tanner, I think you need to be reminded from time-to-time that you are one of the few people on this team who is not a Jew, spic, nigger, pansy or booger-eating moron. So you'd better cool it or we may be disposed to beat the crap out of you.”
In a later scene, when the coach tries to make the only black player on the team feel better about the errors he committed in a game, the player responds with, “Don’t give me none of your Honky bullshit.” Coach replies, “Let’s not bring race into this. We’ve got enough problems as it is.”
Adults of this era believed kids understood the world around them and deserved to have real solutions to similar problems they might face in their own lives. The mindset of the nation was very much it takes a village to raise a child. Writers and producers extended themselves as on-screen caregivers and that’s why, for the first generation of latchkey kids, TV played a pivotal role in raising them into adults capable of dealing with the societal pressures they faced. The Bad News Bears is a perfectly executed example of this relationship between Hollywood and society. The balance is well struck between realism and entertainment at no one’s expense.
Out of context, this film can easily be picked apart with modern ideals. Reflecting back on the film today, I couldn’t fathom a line like, “This is for Allah and its going way out there sucker.”, not getting all sorts of 24-hour news station criticism. Back then though, Allah was just someone else’s God.
With classic baseball lines like, “If you were so great how come you didn’t make it to the major leagues?’ ‘Contract disputes.’” perhaps it’s no surprise the film’s writer, Bill Lancaster, won the 1977 Writer’s Guild of America Best Comedy Written Directly for Screen Award. The reason this film sticks with baseball people through the decades could be that it was filmed much like a game is played, with lots of time between bursts of action. Language and jokes are quick in this film. It was written at a time when Hollywood was not afraid of action without words so the dialogue can come out like spasms of energy. For a non-native speaker, we recommend watching the film with subtitles or closed caption on to be sure you catch all the nuances the film has to offer.
In the end, this is a simple baseball film about a bunch of kids playing little league-level ball. The movie’s outdated cultural views, by today’s standards, might not be for everyone but the mouth of The Bears, Tanner, best expresses what we imagine the writer, filmmaker and lovers of this little gem would have to say about it. “You can take your apologies, and your trophies, and shove it straight up your ass.”