What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is not being done as part of a blog-a-thon. Instead, this is a monthly event hosted by MovieRob called Genre Grandeur. The way it works is every month MovieRob chooses a film blogger to pick a topic and a movie to write about, then also picks a movie for MovieRob to review. At the end of the month, MovieRob posts the reviews of all the participants. For January 2020, the honor of being the “guest picker” went to Sally of 18 Cinema Lane. The topic is “Youth-Led Movies.” Not does my choice fit the theme, but it is a reminder that Spring Training is right around the corner…pitchers and catchers report in less than three weeks.
The Bad News Bears exists as a a team because a city councilman and attorney named Bob Whitewood (played by Ben Piazza) who filed a lawsuit against an ultra-competitive Southern California Youth Baseball League which excluded the least skilled athletes. In order to settle the lawsuit, the league agrees to add an additional team, the Bears. Being composed of the worst players, Whitewood can’t get anybody to manage the team until he pays Morris Buttermaker (played by Walter Matthau) to do it.
Buttermaker is less than an inspiring leader; he’s a drunk and a boor, but he knows baseball as he was a minor-league pitcher. He’s also a perfect match for this team of misfits, featuring a nearly-blind brainiac pitcher named Stein (played by David Pollock), a pugnacious, foul-mouthed shortstop with a Napoleon complex named Tanner (played by Chris Barnes), an outfielder who dreams of emulating his idol Hank Aaron named Ahmad (played by Erin Blunt), a bullied sad sack Timmy Lupus (played by Quinn Smith), and a portly catcher named Engelberg (played by Gary Lee Cavagnaro) who is arguably the best player on the team. The Bears are so bad that in their opening game, they don’t even record an out; they give up 26 runs before Buttermaker threw in the towel.
Since he knows the team is hopeless, Buttermaker recruits the sharp-tongued Amanda Whurlizer (played by Tatum O’Neal), the 11-year-old daughter of Buttermaker’s ex-girlfriend who previously he trained as a pitcher. At first, she tries to convince Buttermaker that she has given up baseball, but he knows that’s bullshit. Buttermaker then recruits the “best athlete in the area,” a cigarette-smoking, loan-sharking, motorcycle-riding juvenile delinquent named Kelly Leak (played by Jackie Earle Haley).
Behind Amanda’s arm and Leak’s bat, the Bears start winning games. Eventually, they make it to the league championship game where they face the best team in the league, appropriately named the Yankees. Coached by the aggressive, competitive Roy Turner (played by Vic Morrow). As the game progresses, tensions are ratcheted up as Buttermaker and Turner engage in shouting matches, directing their players to become increasingly more ruthless, going as far as fighting, spiking on the slide, or batters deliberately being hit with pitches.
The turning point of the game comes after a heated exchange between Turner’s son (and Yankees pitcher) Joey and the Bears catcher Engelberg. Turner orders his son to walk Engelberg, the only Bears hitter he cannot overcome. Joey doesn’t want to walk him, so he throws the next pitch directly at Engelberg’s head. He missed, but an enraged Turner goes to the mound and slaps Joey. On the next pitch, Engelberg hits a routine ground ball back to Joey who exacts revenge against his father by holding the ball until Engelberg rounded the bases. Joey then leaves the game, dropping the ball at his father’s feet.
At this point, Buttermaker realizes he’s forgotten what Little League baseball is all about, and has a genuine, albeit slightly misguided way of showing his team his appreciation. After they lose the championship to the Yankees, Buttermaker starts handing out beers from his cooler, and The Bad News Bears start spraying beer all over each other as if they had won.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
The hardest part about doing a series called “Sports Analogies Hidden in Classic Movies” comes when the film being discussed actually centers on sports. That’s because the analogies sometimes aren’t really hidden.
Trust me, as a guy who has coached youth baseball, the beauty of this movie is the Bad News Bears really exist. Understanding this requires a working knowledge of how Little League baseball actually works. Most of us really only know Little League from the annual World Series every August. Those teams you see in Williamsport, Pennsylvania are “all-star” teams comprised of the best players and coaches from an entire league. The Bad News News Bears represent the other end of the spectrum. Little League is all about participation, which means for every team of all-stars, there’s a team of Bad News Bears.
Likewise, you can find every kid from that movie on almost every Little League team in America. Start with “Amanda,” the girl who can out-pitch everybody…she’s rare, but she exists. On the other hand, you can find a “Tanner”almost anywhere…a little “Billy Martin” waiting to happen who is willing fight anybody anybody at the drop of a hat. There’s usually an “always talking, only backs it up sometimes”-type like Ahmad, much as there’s always the brainy “Stein” kid. As for the heart and soul of “participation,” there’s always a nose-picking little nerd-burger like “Lupus.” Finally, lots of teams have an “Engelbert,” a chunky catcher who can rip the cover off the ball. To lead them all, there’s the beer-guzzling, pool-cleaning coach Morris Buttermaker.
Granted, since this movie is forty-plus years old, the “Buttermaker” model of a manager had been largely replaces by the suburban, golf-shirt wearing “Dad” types. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed. I will tell you from first-hand experience that the sun around which every Little League revolves is Kelly Leak. That’s the kid you see every year in Williamsport, the kid who looks like he drove the team bus, smokes, and may already have two kids of his own. He’s got papers that say he’s 12 years old, and he keeps them right next to ones he uses when he buys beer. Your eyes go right to that kid because he’s taller than the coach and has more razor-stubble.
Your eyes also go right to that kid because nine times out of ten, he’s the best player on the diamond. In between his dirt bike and his Marlboros, he’ll put on the spikes, track down every ball in the outfield, and smack two or three out of the park. That’s the essential Kelly Leak; the kid who made the Bad News Bears respectable because not only was he the star, he added a major dose of “bad-ass.”
That’s because Leak was the definition of “man amongst boys.” He can lung a Marlboro, ride a motorcycle, and fire a strike to 3rd base from beyond the left field wall. This all begs a question. Usually in Little League, the best athletes do the pitching, so why the hell wasn’t Leak on the mound after Amanda has elbow trouble that probably got her a “Tommy John” surgery?
Instead, Buttermaker leaves Leak in LEFT FUCKING FIELD! He doesn’t even have him in center field where you would normally have your best outfielder and puts power-nerd Stein on the mound to lose the game. This never made any sense to me…and that’s coming from a guy who once upon a time may have been Engelbert, then may have grown up to be Buttermaker.
So, grab a beer kids…
Now, for a completely unsolicited, but quasi-related plug. When I’m not being the most interesting independent sports blogger on the web, Mrs. J-Dub and I enjoy traveling and staying in unique hotels. Well, there’s really no better use of the term “unique” than the City Hall Grand Hotel in the world’s capital of Little League Baseball, Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
If you ever find yourself in Williamsport, do yourself a favor and check out the City Hall Grand Hotel. It’s a very different experience, but it you’re willing to try something you’re not used to, you’re in for a reward. It’s called the City Hall Grand for a reason. It’s in Williamsport’s 19th-century City Hall building. At one point, when Williamsport was the logging capitol of the world, there were more millionaire’s per capita in his town than anywhere else on earth. This building is an example of that era.
Not only that, but it’s still also a functioning office building. Yes that’s sounds strange at first, and it is. There’s also no traditional front desk. Yes, that’s strange too. But the experience outweighs the oddity; in fact it turns out to one of it’s greatest charms. The rooms are tucked away in spots away from the offices, but you will encounter them on your travels through the building. Bumping into somebody in a suit on their way to work (most of the office tenants are lawyers) is not uncommon, especially on the way to the common lounge to get some coffee.
But now that Williamsport is now known as the home of Little League baseball, the people are are terribly proud of their town and extremely friendly to tourists. They want you to enjoy their town, and people staying at the City Hall will immediately notice that. They will all ask you how your enjoying stay, tell you good places to eat and attractions to see beyond the baseball complex.
So, if you’re ever in the Williamsport area, do your self a favor and give this definition of unique a look. Then go check out the Little League complex, then go up the hill and visit Clyde Peeling’s Reptile Land, During your stay, be sure to have breakfast at The Buttery Biscuit, dinner at Johnson’s Cafe, and take in some craft micro-brew at the The Bullfrog Brewery.
In the meantime, here’s some selected sights from Mrs. J-Dub’s and my most recent trip to Williamsport.
The Moral of The Story:
Whether it’s having a juvenile delinquent as your left-fielder, or staying in a hotel made from a 19th-century American castle, getting outside the box has it’s rewards.
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