“The Bad News Bears,” a baseball movie directed by Michael Ritchie in 1976, featured an alcoholic, washed-up minor leaguer (Walter Matthau) coaching a tomboy pitcher (Tatum O’Neal) on a team of misfits in the ultra-competitive North Valley Little League.

Bad News Bears Baseball Movies Film Walter Matthau Tatum O'Neal
Coach Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) and the Bears, including Amanda (Tatum O’Neal, #11), at the end of a long season. (Image: Paramount)

The legendary Walter Matthau signed on to play the curmudgeon coach that’s either drinking or nursing a hangover the entire film. Tatum O’Neal, the youngest thespian to win an Oscar two years earlier for “Paper Moon” (1973), was cast as the star pitcher and only girl playing on the team.

“The Bad News Bears” became the first of many sports films involving competitive children’s athletics.

“The thing that surprised everybody was that it was about kids, but adults loved it,” said producer Stanley Jaffe.

Paramount made “The Bad News Bears” with a $3.5 production million budget and it became a huge hit grossing $43 million at the box office. It almost cracked the Top 10 and finished at #11 overall in 1976, out-grossing iconic films such as “Taxi Driver” and “Network.”

Release: April 1976
Produced by: Stanley R. Jaffe
Written by: Bill Lancaster
Directed by: Michael Ritchie
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Music by: Jerry Fielding

Michael Ritchie initially made a name for himself with the sports film “Downhill Racer” (1969). He later directed the “Fletch” flicks with Chevy Chase.

Bill Lancaster (The Thing), the son of actor Burt Lancaster, penned the screenplay for “The Bad News Bears,” but he didn’t set out to write a baseball movie, but rather, a film about a delinquent kid who was an outsider.

The Plot: Alcoholic Coaches Misfits

When a city council member’s son, Toby Whitewood (David Stambaugh), isn’t allowed on any of the existing teams, Mr. Whitewood sues the league and wins. The North Valley Little League adds a seventh team to their roster and the Bears were born.

Whitewood hires his pool cleaner, a washed-up, ex-minor leaguer who never made it to the “Show,” named Buttermaker to coach his son’s new team.

The fact they don’t even have the name of a real baseball team (e.g., the rest of the league had the Yankees, A’s, and White Sox) paints the kids as outsiders. Even the best sponsors have been taken, and Buttermaker has no choice but to get funding from Chico’s Bail Bonds.

During the first practice, a hungover Buttermaker meets the commissioner (Joyce Van Patten), who isn’t thrilled about the overly litigious Whitewood allowing a group of misfits into the league. At the first practice, Buttermaker quickly realizes that the Bears are comprised of very bad players from the fringes of the community. That includes the fat kid catcher Engleberg (Gary Lee Cavagnaro), the token African-American kid Ahmad (Erin Blunt), a stats-spewing nerd Ogilvie (Alfred W. Lutter), and the Augilar brothers from Mexico (Jaime Escobedo and George Gonzales) who don’t speak English.

The Yankees are the rich kids from the neighborhood with a hard-ass coach, Roy Turner (Vic Morrow). Turner rides his son Joey (Brandon Cruz) fairly hard. Joey is one of the bullies in school who picks on many members of the Bears, including the weird kid, Lupus (Quinn Smith).

Adding the Girl and the Delinquent

Buttermaker knows the Bears are doomed and he decides to recruit a pitcher. He looks up Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the daughter of an ex-girlfriend who sells maps to stars homes in the Hollywood Hills. Buttermaker is unsuccessful at first because Amanda has moved on from tomboy activities, but she bribes him into paying for ballet lessons and designer jeans.

Even the addition of a star pitcher like Amanda barely makes the Bears competitive. Buttermaker tried to recruit Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a motorcycle-driving, cigarette-smoking juvenile delinquent who also happens to be the best athlete in the neighborhood.

With Amanda and Kelly on the team, the Bears finally coalesce into a winning team. They go on a winning streak and qualify for the playoffs before meeting the Yankees in the championship game. Buttermaker is conflicted about the best way to coach the kids. Should they win at all costs? Or should he let everyone play? Much to the dismay of the parents, he plays all the bad players, including Lupus, who insists on not playing.

“You didn’t come into this life to sit around on a dugout bench?” said Buttermaker. “Then get your ass out there and do the best you can.”

In a heroic moment, Lupus makes a game-saving catch to kill a rally by the Yankees.

In one of the most intense scenes in the film, Coach Turner slaps his son, Joey, for insubordination when he throws at Engleberg instead of pitching around him. Joey gets retaliation on his father when he lets the Bears score a crucial run.

Spoiler Alert

In true 1970s cinema fashion, the underdogs actually lost in this baseball movie. Any sports film these days would have the good kids beat the bad kids to win the championship.

Paramount head Barry Diller and other studio execs wanted the Bears to win the final game. However, screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie felt it necessary that the Bears lose. It made it more realistic, but also made the ending bittersweet, much like life.

Besides, even in the wake of losing, the Bears won the respect of their peers and built up self-confidence which is far more important than a flimsy trophy. Of course, after losing the game, Coach Buttermaker hands out celebratory beers to the kids even though they’re underage.

Despite a last-inning comeback, the Bears lose. In one of the funniest moments of the film — during a trophy presentation — the Bears roll up with beers in their hands and Tanner proclaims, “You can take your apology and trophy and shove it straight up your ass!”

Lovable Misfits and 1970s Anti-Heroes

The Bears were the proverbial melting pot, with a team consisting of kids from different fringe parts of 1970s society. The Bears included kids of varying religions and a couple of immigrants from Mexico.

Tanner, the Bears’ shortstop and sparkplug, portrayed a child version of Archie Bunker. Tanner, grown-up, would most likely be a Twitter troll today. He summed up the Bears’ plight during a non-politically correct diatribe that would never make it into a film in today’s woke culture.

“The Bad News Bears” was a movie ahead of its time. It portrayed crazy sports parents before children’s sports got out of hand in the last couple of decades.

Kids loved the film because they saw the Bears cursing, but it showed kids as they really are versus how Hollywood often portrayed them.

Bad News Bears – Cast
Morris Buttermaker, Bears Coach (Walter Matthau)
Roy Turner, Yankees Coach (Vic Morrow)
Amanda, P (Tatum O’Neal)
Kelly Leak, OF (Jackie Earle Haley)
Tanner, SS (Chris Barnes)
Toby, 1B (David Stambaugh)
Ahmad, RF (Erin Blunt)
Engleberg, C (Gary Lee Cavagnaro)
Rudi Stein, P (David Pollock)
Ogilvie, Bench (Alfred W. Lutter)
Lupus, Bench (Quinn Smith)

The critics fawned over “The Bad News Bears.” Roger Ebert called it an “unblinking, scathing look at competition in American society.” Rolling Stone dubbed it the “greatest sports film ever made” in 2016.

The film was shot on location in the San Fernando Valley using local little league fields.

Warren Beatty turned down the role of Buttermaker.

Oscars-winner, Tatum O’Neal, earned $350,000 for her role of Amanda. Still only 12-years old during filming, O’Neal practiced pitching for three months with coaches at USC.

Bad News Bears Pop Culture Influence

The original film’s box office success inspired two sequels and a short-lived television series. Hollywood didn’t waste any time with more baseball movies and cranked out a pair of sequels with “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” (1977) and “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” (1978).

CBS aired a sitcom version of “The Bad News Bears” during the 1979-80 season.

In 2005, Richard Linklater directed a reboot featuring Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Buttermaker.

Tatum O’Neal said women still come up to her, 40 years after the film’s debut, to tell her that they got into sports because they were inspired by seeing a girl playing sports with boys. Although that kind of tomboy stuff happened all the time, it was rarely portrayed in a positive light in the mainstream.

Jerry Fielding did the musical score for the film using “Carmen” opera songs. Most people will not know the Bizet wrote the original music but they can quickly identify several movements as “The Bad News Bears” songs.

Other Baseball and Sports Movies

The late 1980s and early 1990s produced several classic baseball movies, but “The Bad News Bears” inspired them all. Almost 45 years later, the original version of “The Bad News Bears” still holds up while encapsulating mid-1970s suburbia and portraying the oddities of little league baseball.

For other sports films, OG recapped the golf comedy classic, Caddyshack (1980) and Steven Soderbergh’s NBA drama, High Flying Bird (2019), which is currently available on Netflix

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