In The Bad News Bears (1976), a city councilman hires a washed-up minor league baseball player with a drinking problem to coach a little league team of leftover misfits. Underdog sports movies are usually full of sentimentalism and dramatic victories, but this film is a commentary on the failing dream of suburban life in America’s bi-centennial year and the rise of extreme competition in youth sports. Spoiler alert: it ends happily with a loss. Today, it can remind American Christians that “winning” does not consist in saving the middle class, but in realizing the true potential of the whole world.
Councilman Bob Whitewood has filed a class-action lawsuit against the southern California league for not ensuring that everyone who wants to play gets to play. Morris Buttermaker, played by Walter Matthau, phones it in at first but has a change of heart as he comes to terms with himself. The message of the film is that unity and participation under good-hearted authority are more important than victory and “purity” under tyrannical leadership. That’s an accessible message, but the following analysis will explore how The Bad News Bears is full of the same Good News that we find in the Bible when we look at it with biblical patterns and symbols in mind. For one thing, this essay will compare the redemptive arc of the Bible and the film by looking at the flow of booze in both.
The film opens to the sound of sprinklers watering a baseball field while men lead boys in drills and calisthenics. Buttermaker hops the curb into the parking lot in his unkempt convertible, pool cleaning supplies bouncing around haphazardly next to an ice chest full of beer. He pulls one out and cracks it open. He pours a little out on the ground and then fishes a bottle of bourbon from the glove box and sloppily pours some in, the hard stuff pooling in the rim of the can and spilling into the car. We see a young punk on a motorbike silhouetted in the sunlight against the field. The man in the car takes his first sip as he grimaces into the morning sun at the field beyond. He pulls out a cheap cigar and a zippo appears in the corner of the camera frame and clicks to life. The boy on the bike leans into the man’s car and lights his cigar. “Thanks Mister,” the man says, and the boy nods and walks back toward his bike.
The man in the car and the boy on the motorcycle are parallel. Their vehicles are extensions of each character and his station. The man is a jalopy and the boy is an obnoxious, 90cc loner. They are both drowning. The booze-soaked man in the car used to be a ball player, but now cleans swimming pools and doesn’t do a good job at that. The boy is drowning in adolescent rebellion and uses his bike throughout the film to sow chaos at the edges of the baseball complex. They both look toward the baseball field which is showered by the sprinklers under the light of the sun and where leadership and order focus human potential. Baseball is dry land. The man in the car used to be there and fell into the sea. The boy secretly longs to be there but bounces off the gates. We discover later that the man has fallen out of fellowship with a lover and her daughter. The boy also strains toward female acceptance as he uses guile to score a date and hits on older women. The boy wants to join the dance of life and the man has fallen out of step. Neither will bow and scrape, which is why they show instant respect for one another.
Buttermaker and Kelly Leak will both tangle with Roy Turner, the coach of the Yankees. Roy Turner is obsessed with competition and the appearance of baseball perfection. His wife remarks to Buttermaker in the first scene that he is also serious about the appearance of the infield. He chases kids away when they ride their bikes on it and shows pure disdain toward others for their appearance. He tells his own team to “keep the champion look” about themselves for the cameras on opening day.
Buttermaker is only coaching the bears for a paycheck. He neglects to appoint positions or a batting order for the team and only narrowly secures a sponsorship for the cost of uniforms from Chico Bail Bonds (Let Freedom Ring!). Unwilling to sacrifice any of his free time, he impresses the team into cleaning pools for him while he picks up the uniforms. On the eve of their first game, he passes out on the mound in a pile of beer cans. The boys gather round to comment upon the state of the unconscious man and conclude that he is no good to them drunk or sober. Buttermaker believes that about himself: He’s not better sober, so why bother?
The kids are aware that they aren’t the best players. They are obese, myopic, asthmatic, frail, and small. They are poor athletes. The Napoleonic Tanner Boyle is disgusted that his team is racially and culturally diverse; he comments upon this fact with politically incorrect language that cannot be repeated here. Two of the boys don’t speak English. None of their fathers have stepped up to help. Predictably, the first game is a humiliating 26-0 blowout that ends when Buttermaker forfeits to the Yankees, but not before he has a rock bottom moment. Tanner goes sprawling into the dirt after missing a grounder. Buttermaker comes out to perform his due diligence and Tanner says, “Look you Crud, just get back to your beer. Get going. Get out of here.” With nothing to say, Buttermaker retreats to the dugout and listens to all of the ridicule coming from the stands behind him before calling the game off.
Ahmad, a black Muslim boy on the Bears hops the outfield fence in shame. He takes off his uniform and climbs up into a tree in his underwear. Buttermaker climbs the tree and sits beside him to talk him down. The boy is ashamed of his performance on the field. He focuses on his fielding errors. He figures that he doesn’t deserve his uniform. His spirit is willing, but his flesh is weak. Buttermaker relates to him a fabricated story about Hank Aaron’s first baseball game as a child where he made 42 errors, and that story helps him to reenter society. In this we might say that Buttermaker is basically preaching a sermon to him. Viewed with biblically informed eyes, Christian worship is an ascent with Christ into the heavens to hear stories and exhortations for moving forward in the mission of God, clothed in Christ.
Whitewood summons Buttermaker to his office to say that he is disbanding the team. It doesn’t even matter if the boys want to continue because the whole affair has been humiliating for him. In this we see that the team’s official advocate really only cares about his own image. Whitewood hands Buttermaker a severance check in front of a trio of portraits on his office wall: MLK, RFK, and JFK, American political figures cut down in their prime, probably when Buttermaker was at the top of his game and as the children in the league were being born.
Buttermaker leaves city hall and returns to his car. We see a billboard for Hello Dolly, a musical about a widowed Jewish matchmaker named Dolly Levi finding her own match. An important quote from the end of that film could be in view here: “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about, encouraging young things to grow.” The Bible essentially says the same thing about wine and strong drink. Booze should be spread around and poured out plenteously for the sake of human connection and festivity, rather than poured ceaselessly into the mouths of kings and prodigals. Buttermaker is realizing that he needs to help young things grow and he is about to get an idea for how he can start. He reaches into his car for another beer. Just then, we hear the whine of a 90cc motorcycle engine in the distance. We don’t see Kelly in this scene, but the sound of his bike is unmistakable. Walter Matthau’s expression changes as he gets an idea. He puts the beer back, unopened, and drives away. Buttermaker seems to be on his way back to his first love, baseball. The sound of Kelly’s motorcycle in the distance could signal that Buttermaker is allowing his younger self to have a voice in his future life, rather than drowning it in booze.
Another thing about Hello Dolly is relevant here, though. Dolly’s surname is Levi. Israel’s priests were Levites. The name Levi sounds like the Hebrew word for “attach” and Leah chose it because she wanted the birth of her son to inspire her husband to be attached to her. The purpose of Levi and all priests is to unite heaven and earth, husband and wife. Buttermaker is about to go in search of Amanda Wurlitzer, the daughter of the woman he left behind. Buttermaker taught her to pitch and wants to bring her onto the Bears as a ringer. Amanda will first reject him because he abandoned them. Also, her mother convinced her that baseball is “tomboy stuff.” Buttermaker will suss out the fact that she hasn’t really given up on baseball or him. He finds her by the side of the road selling maps to the houses of Hollywood movie stars. She’s wearing a dress and jewelry, and reading fashion magazines, and is trying to grow up into the Hollywood ideal of womanhood. When she does join the Bears, she will put on the uniform and play ball, but she also starts taking ballet lessons. Her femininity and her skill are woven into the team tapestry and she uses her charms to try and bring on another ringer, the boy on the bike.
Before Amanda joins the team, however, Buttermaker starts to whip the boys into shape. He teaches them the correct bodily movements. He drills them and gives them chants and songs. He teaches them how to play mind games with the other team. In their next game, they perform the liturgies of baseball with zeal, if not skill, and Buttermaker encourages them.
Buttermaker and Amanda discover Kelly Leak’s athletic prowess when he retrieves a stray ball and throws it in from beyond the outfield. The Bears warn Buttermaker that he’s a loan shark and bully, but Amanda says that they should bring him into the fold. She hatches a plan to challenge him to a game of air hockey. If she wins, he plays for the Bears. She loses, however, and has to go to a Rolling Stones Concert as Kelly’s date. Buttermaker is nonplussed and shows gruff but true concern about her having any kind of a dating life. Scenes like this show that Buttermaker is a diamond in the rough. Kelly continues to hang around the field and ends up having a deciding confrontation with Roy Turner. He tells Turner that he’s the best player around, but Roy knows he has a problem with authority and that he’ll never fit in. Kelly goes to the Bears’ dugout and accepts the invitation to join. Baseball will give him a legitimate battlefield for facing the tyrant.
The Bears at the beginning of the film are a fitting allegory for Israel. Buttermaker is the team’s “head” representing the no-good kings who fail to lead the way God intended. In fact, it could be said about the Bears that there was no manager and everyone on the team did what is right in his own eyes. Every child chooses his own position and the batting order is undecided on the eve of opening day. Drunkenness is frequently a theme in the prophets where the nation and its rulers are drunk on the cup of the wrath of God as they consume resources without regard for the weakest members of society. The oppressed cry out as rulers pour resources into their own bellies.
When Buttermaker is regaling the boys with how he taught Amanda to pitch, Timmy Lupus, the weakest player on the team, mixes a martini. He drops an olive in and passes it over to a reclining Buttermaker who evaluates the cocktail as “superb.” He has enlisted the weakest member of the team to mix drinks for him, but he has done nothing at this point to teach him baseball or to develop his role on the team. This scene fades into the scene where Buttermaker passes out on the mound and the boys gather round to comment upon the state of the man and the state of the team prior to opening day.
It’s not only the nation of Israel that is disordered. This is the state of humanity at any point in history when God rejects the society that emerges under tyrant kings. To be more precise, if the Bears are Israel, the other teams are the powerful gentile nations who appear by all accounts to be properly ordered, but at the expense of the weak. For these teams, the Bears exist to contain the unintegrated weaklings of the community and to make them a laughing stock for the strong. The Good News is that the Bears will ultimately shame the “wise” and powerful teams by drawing out the full effect of the sin plaguing the league. God redeemed
Israel from bondage to don priestly attire and serve as a microcosm for revealing the world’s ills. Israel was meant to show the world a better way through worship, prayer, and praise. The Bears are sponsored by a bail bondsman to don baseball uniforms and play baseball. The championship game reveals the selfishness, biting, and devouring among the adults of the community. Can the Bears make a difference in the wider world just by playing baseball? Perhaps they can if they do not forget their original calling.
The Bears are by no means a spotless sacrificial lamb, though. The same problem in the league starts to manifest within the confines of the team. Buttermaker did well by waking up from his stupor and returning to his first love of baseball. He did well by reconnecting with his would-be daughter, even if he had mixed motives. He did well by giving Kelly Leak a legitimate battleground for fighting Roy Turner. The team genuinely improves and coheres to one another and Buttermaker as a father figure. But he gets a taste for winning, and it turns sour in his belly. He rejects connection with Amanda and her mother as he focuses on the health of his pitcher’s arm. He instructs Kelly to cross boundaries on the field to hog the ball and prevent errors. The children do as they are told because they also want to win.
Buttermaker is on a trajectory toward tyranny right up until a critical moment in the championship game when he instructs Rudy Stein, a Jewish boy, to lean into a pitch so that he can get on base. He gives his back to the pitcher and gets on base, but he refuses to do it a second time. When Rudy disobeys and gets out at first base, Buttermaker hurls him into the dugout and rips into the team with a discouraging verbal barrage that ends with: “What’s the matter with you, don’t you want to beat those bastards?” A long period of silence follows with closeup shots of the children’s faces. They are hurt and bewildered and seem to ask, “Coach, are you going to forsake us, too?”
Buttermaker’s moment of sobriety and grief are evident on Walter Matthau’s face. So many of the best moments in this picture are simply closeups of human faces. His next words hint that his wrath will not explode from the confines of the dugout. It falls on the team in the heart of the earth and dies there. He tells them to get back out there and do the best they can and will prove his change of heart at the next opportunity.
It happens differently for the other team. Coach Turner slaps the pitcher, his own son, in front of everyone for nearly hitting a batter. Then, his son retaliates by holding on to the ball, allowing the Bears to score. The Yankees descend in fury and desperation upon their Coach’s son, dog piling on him in order to wrest the ball from his grasp. The wrath that dissipated within the Bears’ dugout erupted on the field for the other team. Turner’s son drops the ball at his father’s feet before leaving the field with his mother. While the Bears were drawn into the same problems and tendencies of the other teams, their team existed so that everyone could play ball. Their coach learned to act righteously at a critical moment before it erupted in the wider community and the team was spared. Turner was going home to an unhappy and bitter house.
Buttermaker ends up giving every child on the team a chance to play and he takes Amanda off the mound because she’s obviously in pain. When Timmy Lupus protests because he wants to win, Buttermaker tells him, “You didn’t come into this life just to sit on a dugout bench. Now, get out there and do the best you can.” Bob Whitewood comes down from the stands to complain about “that Lupus kid.” Buttermaker reminds him that the purpose of the team was to give every kid a chance to play baseball. The relief players perform abysmally, but when Lupus goes back to catch a deep hit, it drops neatly into his glove on the other side of the outfield fence like an olive dropping into the bottom of a martini glass. The team gathers around him and the music swells. They rejoice in the personal victory of their weakest member and retake the field for their last at-bat.
The Yankees get two outs right away. Then, their pitcher walks two men and attempts to walk Kelly Leak. Kelly looks to Buttermaker in the dugout who urges him to try and get a hit anyway. He follows his coach’s word without hesitation and knocks the ball deep into the outfield. The bears score two runs and Kelly almost scores the tying run, but gets out at home plate. The Bears are visibly deflated, but then Buttermaker does something unexpected and unforgettable.
He reaches into his ice chest and starts passing out bottles of beer to every member on the team. They are confused because they lost, but he says they are celebrating because they did a fine job. “I’ll drink to that,” Tanner Boyle says as he clinks his bottle with another player. The kid who shamed Buttermaker for his drinking and told him to go “back to his beer” in the middle of their first game is now toasting. “Skol,” Buttermaker toasts as Bob Whitewood lobbies a protest about the beer on account of the fact that a photographer from the L.A. Times is present. “I would have gotten champagne, Whitewood, but you don’t pay me enough….” he tells him. Amanda calls out, “Hey Buttermaker, maybe next spring you can teach me how to hit.” Buttermaker pulls off her hat and says, “You bet,” as he gingerly strokes her cheek.” Her face beams.
The two teams approach one another at home plate, the Yankees carrying their massive trophy, and the Bears carrying their bottles of beer. A martial drumbeat accompanies the scene. The bears receive their substantially smaller second place trophy and the Yankees offer a backhanded apology. After a period of silence, Tanner Boyle hollers, informing them where they can stick their cruddy apology and their trophy. Lupus hurls the second place trophy and the Yankees scatter as it lands in the dust. Lupus gets in the last word and says, “And another thing, just wait until next year.” The Bears begin anointing one another with beer as they cheer and dance and their parents and grandparents kiss them.
One might protest that the Bears’ reply is unsportsmanlike, but they have answered the fool according to his folly. This illustrates an important attitude that Christians should have as they make war through the liturgy of Christian worship, prayer, and praise. Like the Bad News Bears, Christians are tempted over and over again to vie for the same trophies that other teams are hoisting on their shoulders. It is better to toss these knick-knacks in the dust, and proclaim that a new season is coming and has already arrived, the New Creation.
Buttermaker’s gift of celebratory beer to his young team looks morally questionable, but it is Christlike in terms of biblical symbolism. Jesus reversed the flow of wine from going into the bellies of drunken kings and prodigal sons and spread it around to the children of God in His memorial feast. He drank the full cup of God’s wrath, but also inspires His spiritual children to take up their own portion of suffering for the good of the world.
Unity and participation in Christ are more important than cultural purity and cultural victory. Like the Bad News Bears, the Church is a place where people from every tribe and nation can participate in the renewal of creation through the best “game” available, the worship of God and the fellowship of the saints. Other teams will win magnificent trophies, but we have the wine of the cup of our Lord to renew us, and that’s good news.
Jacob Gucker is a Librarian at the Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, TX. Twitter: @jwgucker.
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