“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” asks Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane in Moneyball, conveying a sentiment that’s prevalent in most movies about our national pastime. 

People love sports, but a certain kind of person especially adores baseball, falling for the game’s sepia-toned elegance and long history. Men who would otherwise reject sentimentality get all weepy about baseball — and baseball movies — which explains why Field of Dreams remains a dad classic. But even in less sentimental flicks, like Moneyball and Bull Durham, there remains a hushed reverence for the game. In some form or fashion, just about every baseball movie is romantic about the sport.

Which is one reason why The Bad News Bears, which is currently streaming on HBO Max, remains so shocking. That’s not the only reason, of course — its offensive language (coming out of the mouths of kids, no less) is pretty alarming — but this 1976 hit comedy remains an outlier in the genre. Baseball is the setting, but the film isn’t especially gushy about its subject. Here’s a sports movie that likes the national pastime but has no illusions about it. The Bad News Bears is here to tell you that the people around the game are rarely that admirable. Also, most kids are really bad at playing it.

Directed by Michael Ritchie, who’d previously made the acidic political drama The Candidate, The Bad News Bears is equally clear-eyed about its specific milieu. Except, instead of telling the story of an idealistic candidate who faces the realities of modern electioneering, we meet Morris, a drunk who makes his living cleaning other people’s pools. Morris used to have some promise as a ballplayer, but those days are long gone — and because he’s portrayed by Walter Matthau, he carries a perpetual scowl around with him, as well as a beer. 

In this kind of sports film, that’s usually the setup for a redemption story: Grumpy ol’ Morris is asked to coach a bunch of misfit kids, no doubt becoming a sweetheart as he leads his boys on an unlikely but inspiring championship run. That, in fact, is not what happens in The Bad News Bears, which, in keeping with its era, is suspicious of convention and eager to subvert expectations. For one thing, these kids aren’t just underdogs — they’re jerks in precisely the way that kids can often be jerks. They cuss, they complain and they’re spectacularly awful at baseball. No wonder these boys are so well-matched with their coach, who at least likes the game but is never gonna be the guy who delivers a syrupy James Earl Jones-esque speech about the beauty of the sport. Morris doesn’t want to deal with these brats, but after a series of humiliating defeats to better, snootier teams, he decides he’ll recruit a couple ringers — an ace pitcher (Tatum O’Neal), who’s the daughter of his ex, and a cigarette-smoking delinquent (Jackie Earle Haley) — to change their fortunes. Forget pluck, heart, courage and basic decency: Morris is cool with cheating if that’s what it takes to win.

Released two years before the era-defining National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Bad News Bears helped pioneer the slobs-versus-snobs trope that would become a comedy staple for years to come. But unlike other kids’ films, which are often lovable and saccharine, this movie refused to be cuddly — so don’t pick The Bad News Bears for your family movie night. Hearing the young cast let fly with racist and homophobic epithets is upsetting, indicative of a time when such namecalling was considered edgy. Even so, thoughtful adults can wince through those moments while acknowledging what Ritchie is after, which is to use Little League as a metaphor for life’s cruel delineation of winners and losers, haves and have-nots. The Bad News Bears isn’t peddling feel-good fantasy, however, instead offering a realistic portrait of why some people just can’t get ahead — and why they have to flout the rules to gain any sort of advantage. When O’Neal’s Amanda uses vaseline to throw pitches her opponents can’t hit, the only teachable moment is that cheating is totally fine when the playing field is uneven.

In the 1970s, Hollywood was reinventing itself, drawing on younger, rebellious filmmakers and actors who weren’t just pushing against the status quo in the industry but also in society. Jack Nicholson, Robert Altman, Warren Beatty and others challenged the system by delivering movies populated by outcasts and antiheroes who were in stories that rarely featured traditional happy endings. At a time when counterculture kids were becoming disillusioned by their country — insert obligatory references to Vietnam and Watergate here — movies like Five Easy Pieces and Shampoo suggested a break from the old ways of doing things.

The Bad News Bears isn’t often lumped in this collection of New Hollywood films, but it’s impossible to watch the movie and not think of Morris as a spiritual cousin to the sarcastic protagonists of Altman’s surly, hangdog films like California Split and The Long Goodbye. (Those movies’ star, Elliott Gould, would have been an excellent Morris.) Although ostensibly a sports film, The Bad News Bears is resolutely unflashy, the movie replicating its ornery characters’ cynicism and resignation. Even when the Bears start playing better, the film has no desire to be “stirring” — in The Bad News Bears, nobody hugs and nobody learns. Morris may be surrounded by snot-nosed kids, but these little punks are old enough to understand how things work: They’re always going to be battling it out with the Yankees, the league’s slick, smug superstar team, and they’ll probably always end up defeated. Morris, his own big-league dreams dashed, doesn’t try to talk them out of their worldview because he shares it. The Bears are destined to be life’s losers.

The bracing realism of that attitude is what makes The Bad News Bears so funny — and, almost despite itself, weirdly reassuring. Sports movies often sell the lie that athletic competition reveals what’s best about human beings, encouraging us to locate what’s noblest within us. But Ritchie won’t tolerate such nonsense: His kids may have filthy mouths, but they’re not idiots. And despite the offensive epithets, it’s actually quite cheering that Morris’ team is filled with people of different races and genders, creating an amusingly motley crew of geeks and reprobates that represents America’s melting pot of humanity. Not that anyone on the Bears would spend a single second getting touchy-feely about that observation — they’d be too busy making fun of the sap who brought it up in the first place.

There were less-successful sequels, and then in 2005 Richard Linkaler tried an ill-advised remake. (Skip that one: His great baseball movie is actually Everybody Wants Some!!) But as the MLB playoffs roll along, it’s worth remembering the 1976 original, which saw the game as nothing more than a microcosm for class and failure. A few months after The Bad News Bears came out, another underdog sports film, Rocky, went on to be a huge hit, grabbing the Oscar for Best Picture in the process. That movie wanted us to believe that even bums can be winners sometimes — or, at the very least, that moral victories count for something. The Bad News Bears isn’t so sure about all that. The Bears don’t win in the end because they’re not supposed to — that would have defeated the whole point of the movie. Matthau and his moppets make losing seem downright winning.

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