In the year or so since David Frum's How We Got Here: The 70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life For Better or Worse located the disintegration of American society in the heart of the Ford/Carter years, the Me Decade has come in for ever more scrutiny as a cultural watershed. With a new book, Bruce J. Schulman's The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics, treating some of the same bell-bottomed territory, we can look forward to seeing even more attention given to the way various seventies people and events undermined powerful and hidebound institutions. Studio 54, the Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King match, Erich von Daniken, and many more hits of the decade will all be explored. Given the cumbersome titles of both Frum's and Schulman's books, some scholar might even want to look into the way that era's fondness for prolix titles like The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-the-Moon Marigolds and Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? undermined confidence in America's great cultural structures.
But one piece of seventies lore one which is this year celebrating its silver anniversary and which had a palpable and almost total undermining effect on a particular institution never seems to get mentioned. We are speaking, of course, of The Bad News Bears.
This neglect is sad, if not unexpected. Director Michael Ritchie, star Walter Mathau and screenwriter Bill Lancaster have all died in the past few years. Tatum O'Neal, the film's marquee attraction at the time of its release, is now best known as a former Mrs. McEnroe, while Chris Barnes, whose Tanner Boyle character was the film's moral center, appears not to have worked in the movie industry since the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, the film's status as a cultural event, as the film that killed Little League, can hardly be overstated.
As is often the case with a cultural watershed, it's impossible to say for certain whether The Bad News Bears influenced the culture or merely reflected it. Certainly part of the movie's immediate brilliance lay in the mirror it held up to a dysfunctional national pastime riddled with psycho dads, butchy equipment ladies, and disgruntled prepubescents. A nation of fat kids, and fat-on-the-inside kids, bucked up when Coach Buttermaker yelled at Engelberg: "Get your fat ass behind the plate!" At the same time, as everybody knows who played Little League ball in the decade or two of the movie's influence as a grateful nation watched the Bears not only Break Training but Go To Japan the The Bad News Bears was instrumental in turning a formerly docile population of pint-sized fielders into a foul-mouthed field of anarchists. (A similar relationship exists between Animal House and the countless frat brothers who simultaneously try to ape the film's antics and reflect its essential accuracy.) The Bad News Bears's creative destruction of Little League lay not in discouraging participation (which in fact has increased in fits and starts since 1976) but in undermining the iron authority of The League.
Certainly, Little League itself considers the threat of The Bad News Bears not only an historical fact but an ongoing problem. When Suck contacted Little League International Headquarters to ask if the organization would be honoring the film's 25th anniversary, director of public relations Lance Van Auken gave a chilly reply. "Absolutely not," Van Auken exclaimed. "That film is something that doesn't portray Little League as it is; it is not something that Little League would be proud of. And Little League had nothing to do with making it." If nothing else, it's a sign of the power of cinema that the movie's wounds are still raw after 25 years.
Given the moderately good fortunes of Little League Baseball in recent years, you might expect the organization to be bit more sunny. More than two and a half million kids played ball in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available. While that's down slightly from the mid-nineties, it's a substantial bucking of the trend toward ever more chubby, surly and inert children that is supposed to be plaguing our nation. International Little League participation is up (a development for which the League media kit credits "the decline of communism/socialism in many countries, or former republics of the Soviet Union"), with outposts in places as far-flung as Albania, Palau and Lesotho, and the League is hard at work on such fanciful projects as a "European Leadership Training Center" in Kutno, Poland. For the first time in American history, a former Little Leaguer sits in the Oval Office. And when the history of zine culture is officially written, certainly the one universally recognized instance of brilliance will be the fact that Josh Glenn's Hermenaut sponsors an expansion team in Jamaica Plain, Mass. (9-2 in the 2000 season).
At the same time, as any trip to the field will tell you, Little League, like baseball itself, is on the downside of America's increasing class stratification a bastion, in many places, of marginalized misfits lacking even the Bears' blend of social types. President TeeBall can afford to make a gesture to the national pastime now that he's in office (albeit with an asterisk by his record), but when he's on the campaign trail, it's the Soccer Mom he's courting. As America's moneyed class decides among an expanding field of activities for the kids, they are increasingly choosing anything except Little League.
It's doubtful that The Bad News Bears can take credit or blame for any of this, but when you get outside the pompous ranks of the Little League organization and its Rule Book, Boards of Directors and Constitution (a "suggested formula for organization, elections, etc."), you find a population far more comfortable with the film's effects. "Required viewing for parents with kids in little league," says one IMDb reviewer (not Maltin). Among parents, the film is rightly regarded as a family classic, a tacit admission that what seemed like sailor talk twenty-five years ago seems remarkably mild today.
Still, none of this constitutes full appreciation. Michael Ritchie's sardonic pictures of the seventies, which included the bilious Smile, have been allowed to vanish from the American consciousness, and in this banner year for twenty-fifth anniversaries in which we mark Hollywood classics from Rocky to From Noon Til Three The Bad News Bears is being shabbily neglected. No special re-release, no fancy DVD special edition. It's a poor showing for a movie that did more to liberate a generation than any Underground film ever shown on IFC. In 1939, when Carl Stotz decided baseball in the vacant lots of Williamsport, Pennsylvania lacked sufficient order and regimentation, he delivered the national sport into the hands of martinet coaches and control freak dads. Michael Ritchie oversaw an uprising of cussing juveniles that broke that control forever, and the whole country should still be thanking him. Wellington could claim that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Nobody has ever said America's wars were won on its baseball diamonds. Thanks to The Bad News Bears, nobody ever will.
Courtesy of BarTel d'Arcy