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VEB Movie Club: Bad News Bears (1976)

The classic comedy baseball movie holds up for message it has.

While we here at VEB await for the start of the baseball season, whether that wait be a month or a full year, we are going to periodically watch classic baseball movies. The purpose of VEB Movie Club is quite simply for us writers to watch classic movies we missed and see what exactly we have missed. Sometimes, we’ll watch a movie we haven’t watched since we were a child. As a counterpoint, we will also feature a writer who has seen the movie and remembers it well.

Jeff: This was released in 1976, my age-9 season. But I likely didn’t see it until a few years later via that magical new “cable television” medium. Middle-school me likely thought it was the most hilarious movie of all time. It remained funny to me with subsequent viewings during high school, college, and “real-world” early adulthood.

Having just entered my age-53 season, I honestly don’t know the last time I saw it. Five years? Ten years ago? Global Pandemic Time holds no meaning for me. So where on the “holds up” spectrum will it land for me now?

Gabe: Honestly, if you were able to watch it as an adult and still liked it, I don’t think you’ll have problems. Me? Without the child nostalgia, I may not have the same opinion. I have seen the remake actually, but I don’t remember anything about it. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, I couldn’t tell you. But I’m excited to dig into this movie for the first time.

We watched this movie at around the same time, so that when we both finished we would have a discussion. The following is the discussion that follows the movie.

Jeff: I came into this focusing on if the humor would stand up over time. For me, it decidedly did not. I obviously was drawn to that in my earlier years of watching it. But this time around I got so much more out of the film.I immediately focused on the social topics woven through it: race, gender roles, bullying, body shaming, parenting, etc. Lots there I never gave much thought to before.

Gabe: I actually did laugh quite a few times, but I would agree that the appeal of the movie definitely isn’t the comedy. And I just want to say right off the bat, I freaking loved this movie. It’s not explicitly said in the movie, or at least if it is, I missed it, but the reason why the one parent had to fight for this team was partially because they had a black kid and two Mexicans right?

Jeff: Glad you liked it! I think one of the few times I caught myself laughing was when the catcher made a play in front of the plate, and with a runner trying for home, turned and fired the ball into the ump’s chest protector, with no teammate there!

The only reason I recall given for the parent (the Councilman) fighting for the team (he actually sued the league!) was that they were trying to exclude all the bad players, which included his son and several others, which were of several races. Those kids weren’t good enough for the rest of the league.

A classic “misfits vs. the cool kids” theme set in baseball.

Gabe: Right, I knew that was the reason the movie gave, but I wasn’t sure if “not good enough” was partially based on race. But I could be reading too much into it. It’s strange to me that this movie was remade. For one thing, a coach doing what Matthau did is a very different thing in 1976 than 2005. You just wouldn’t have gotten away with constantly drinking while coaching the team - at least so openly. And boy the opening scene with Matthau pouring whiskey in a beer is vomit worthy to me.

Also the character of Kelly Leak, where there’s just not a good analogue in modern day times to that type of kid. I’m not saying kids are all good now, but driving a motorcycle around (how old he is supposed to be?), smoking, I mean he was introduced with a girl who looked a few years older than him! Which was strange because boy was Jackie Earle Haley a weird looking kid.

Jeff: Yeah, alcohol played quite a prominent role! From Coach Buttermaker’s drinking in the dugout—and on-field during a game!, to Lupus making him a martini during a team gathering, to the team celebrating their almost championship with beers all around! All the kids were supposed to be about 10-12 years old I think, so yeah, lots of adult-like behavior for such youngsters. I do recall as a middle-schooler viewing really as an adult in this movie. He smokes! Rides a motorcycle! With no helmet! Tries to pick up young women! He’s a man!I think all the “adult” behavior was an important point in the movie.

They all act older, but they’re still just young, vulnerable kids. Kelly feels bad for trying to make all the outfield plays others could make, then is bummed when they ignore him post-game. Amanda is all tough, but really just wants to be part of a family, even if that’s with Buttermaker as her father figure. Tanner wants to fight everyone and swear like a sailor, but just wants to play ball and have friends.

Gabe: Yeah when he started handing beers to the kids, my first thought was “that’s not what I think it is, is it? Oh.... yes it is. Wow.” And I’m kind of amazed at the message of this movie, because it sneaks up on you. You see Matthau and the Yankees coach both yelling at their kids, completely ignorant to anything but winning. And it’s the most effective message of “just let kids have fun” that I’ve ever seen. Like legitimately, I’d have a hard time imagining someone watching this and coming away from it not wanting to avoid being those coaches with every fiber of your being. The key is the how brutal the coaches are to the kids. The movie does not hold back at all. Matthau throws a beer in the poor girl’s face. The other coach literally hits his kid to the ground.

When the kid pitcher walks the batter on purpose, and holds onto the ball and just stares at his dad, man. I loved it so much. You knew based on the type of movie this was, that when Kelly tries for the inside the park home run, he would be thrown out, because it would sort of undercut the message if they won at that point. I think anyway. And of course, when the Yankees players all try to play nice at the end, perfect decision to have the kids start yelling at them instead of becoming friends.

Jeff: You hit the nail on the head: the movie is special because they didn’t hold back, neither with the coaches or players behavior.Overall, I loved how the kids learned from Buttermaker and vice-versa throughout. The kids learned confidence, teamwork, hustle, desire, resiliency, the importance of a cup, and oh yeah, a little baseball. Buttermaker learned Little League Baseball is about the kids’ enjoyment of the game and not a win at all costs endeavor to validate your own baseball coaching ability.

Did you play little league ball growing up, and if so, any flashbacks from the movie?

Gabe: I did play little league baseball, but not so much on the flashbacks. For starters, we were never as bad as this team was and my coaches were all good. So I remember much more advanced playing than what is shown in the movie, but that’s not a complaint. The baseball parts of this movie are actually pretty realistic. I don’t know if Tatum O’Neal actually threw in real life, but she’s pretty convincing as a good pitcher!

And can I just say how surprised I am that all the kids were pretty good actors? Having watched my fair share of older TV shows and movies from then, and with the exception of like Ron Howard, nobody seemed to be all that good at acting like a real kid. So that helped a lot. O’Neal is very good in this and I actually kind of appreciate how, I don’t know, ahead of its time it was with her being better than the boys? And of course the replacement father-daughter relationship makes you hope he continues to be a replacement father to her, but I’m glad they didn’t address that at the end, leaving you to just hope (cause in reality, I don’t like the odds of that working out)

Jeff: I related to a few things from my playing days. While I can’t recall playing for any abusive, hyper-aggressive coaches, I definitely saw them on opposing teams. Made me appreciate the ones I had.I played on a team at about the same ages of the Bears with a girl who not only was a good pitcher but one of the better all-around players we had. And yes, I remember the milestone of—wait—we’re supposed to wear a cup? Such an important rite of passage.I agree the baseball playing action was first-rate. Especially from the Bears’ competition. The other teams were all supposed to be good to excellent and it looked like it!

And BTW, when I first saw this movie, I was very disappointed the Bears didn’t win the championship! But again, that was when I was in middle school, when the world was always supposed to be filled with happy endings. As I got older, I think understood why they had the Bears lose.But they played on their terms, with Buttermaker putting in players who rarely played all year into key situations with the game on the line. And they still almost pulled out a win. That’s why they could still celebrate at the end despite the loss.

Speaking of coaching strategies, some of my favs in the movie: calling on a bad hitter to get hit by a pitch on purpose (twice!). And A dramatic shift with I think all outfielders placed between left and left-center! That worked! Telling Kelly to swing at pitches meant to intentionally walk him! Genius!

Which begs the question: Who do you want as your Little League coach: Buttermaker or Matheny?

Gabe: Little League coach? Matheny. Without a doubt. As a kid, I would feel way more comfortable with him than Buttermaker, regardless of results. But actually, now that you do mention it, I am reminded of a teammate I had for a year or two whose dad was basically like the opposing dad in the movie. Maybe not physically abusive, but for instance, I know that he’d have him practice free throws, and if he made 90 out of 100, he’d be disappointed he missed 10 shots. I can’t remember his name and I don’t think he ever did anything professionally, so what was the point? Kid probably never had fun playing any sports. Yes, the shift! I was shocked. Buttermaker did tell the kid he shouldn’t ever swing on 3-0 though, which was wrong, although at that level, good rule of thumb I suppose.

But this movie did really understand baseball on a level that few baseball movies seem to, even the good ones. Like you mentioned, there were actual baseball strategies that are more complex than your average coaching! Honestly, this might be my new favorite baseball movie? Granted, a large portion of the baseball movies I have seen... I watched when I was significantly younger, so I can’t say that opinion with any degree of confidence, but it’s certainly up there. I did not expect this to happen. I expected to like it, but not love it. So I’m very glad I got the good luck to watch this movie with you, because I’m not totally sure it’s a movie I’d watch otherwise.

Any last thoughts or should we end it there?

Jeff: It’s cool we both had certain expectations going into this movie and different feelings after! I very much appreciated your thoughts on it and enjoyed the discussion! But it’s after midnight, and like 2019 Waino in the 5th, I’m running out of gas. Think it’s time for me to hit the clubhouse.