All We Got on This Team Are a Buncha...(April, 1976)
The Bad News Bears, 1970s dystopian sports movies, and our current predicament
Welcome to Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by Michael Weinreb about sports history, culture and politics. If you like what you’re reading, please subscribe and share.
I. Flipping the Bird
There is a scene roughly thirty minutes into the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears—and I’m speaking of the original here, and not the ramshackle sequels or the less offensive and less interesting 2005 Richard Linklater remake—where a local marching band plays the national anthem to kick off the Little League baseball season. This band does not play the anthem particularly well, the way you’d expect a marching band in a movie might; they just belt out an off-key version as a bunch of little league teams stand on the baselines and director Michael Ritchie slowly reveals the back of each team’s jerseys, bearing the name of a local sponsor—Pizza Hut, Denny’s—until we come to the Bears, who are, of course, sponsored by a bail bondsman named Chico.
You may not recall this scene other than the brilliant punchline, and I don’t blame you for that, because nothing much happens in it, and because it is preceded by the moment in which an alcoholic little league coach played by Walter Matthau—who had already established himself as the archetype of the cynical sportswriter in The Odd Couple—passes out drunk on the mound, and by the moment in which a pre-teen named Tanner launches into a foul-mouthed and offensive rant about how the Bears’ ethnic diversity is part of what’s rendered them outcasts.
Perhaps you’ve forgotten the premise that the Bad News Bears is based on: A rich and powerful guy files a lawsuit so his son and those outcasts can play in a highly competitive little league in which no one wants them. Then he hires Matthau’s character, the brilliantly named Walter Buttermaker, a failed baseball prospect and a failed father, to coach this team. The movie was released in 1976, in the wake of Watergate and amid the collective self-loathing of the Ford presidency, so its cynicism about the American dream is not exactly subtle. As Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times when reviewing Linklater’s anodyne sequel:
Released three years after the wits at National Lampoon threatened to shoot a dog unless you bought the magazine and two years before "Animal House" hit the zeitgeist with yucks and mashed potatoes, the first "Bad News Bears" seemed very much a product of its anarchic times. In some ways, the irreverence of that film is best expressed by a string of epithets lodged at the team by one of the Bears themselves, Tanner, a towheaded squirt with a vocabulary as blue as that of Lenny Bruce. In the mid-1970's, when almost everyone but angry women and a few bomb-throwers seemed worn out by dissent and was rushing into narcissism, this sly sports comedy championed our cherished tradition of flipping the bird to anyone and everything, and during the bicentennial no less.
That brief national anthem scene in the original Bad News Bears is about as patriotic and sentimental as the movie ever gets, and even this moment feels like a mockery of our attempts to impose patriotism on even the most insignificant sporting events. This is the beauty of The Bad News Bears: It is one of the most angry and profane sports films of all time, and yet at the same time, it is also one of the most cathartic, an extended middle finger to the whole idea of competitive sports in America, and the way we put all of it—and particularly baseball—on some exalted pedestal. It is an anarchic film that came along at an anarchic moment in American life, and when I think about the return of sports in 2020, I want that feeling to course through my veins.
II. Middle Finger Emojis
According to a Pew poll released this week, 71 percent of Americans are angry about the state of the country, which—if you are among that 71 percent, and not among the 29 percent of Americans who apparently consider themselves “pandemic incompetency enthusiasts”—is probably not something you needed a poll to tell you. We’ve fucked everything up, and there is very little hope in sight at the moment, and because of that, all of our nation’s priorities are now being called to our attention in ways that they haven’t before. This is what happens when you fail: You start to question everything. You ask yourself things you might not have asked before, like, What the hell are sports supposed to be? Do we really need them in the midst of a pandemic, or are we just being selfish and greedy?
Here is where I could give you some gauzy speech voiced by Kevin Costner about why sports matter, and how they bring people together, and how winning can buoy communities and how losing can build character. But give me a break, because no one’s in the mood for that bullshit right now. Sure, there’s something about a great sporting event that catches me in ways few other things can; for that same reason, I’m not immune to the charms of Friday Night Lights, a television show which so brilliantly captured the feeling of what football meant that it made some people uncomfortable to watch it. But let’s be real: That’s not what we’re going to get out of sports in 2020.
A few days ago, NBA commissioner Adam Silver intimated that players might be able to replace the names on the back of their jerseys with a political message when the season (possibly) resumes in late July. That’s cool, but unless LeBron James posts a middle-finger emoji on the back of his jersey, I don’t care. I’m not particularly interested in the kind of look-at-me activism that’s engineered for an Instagram post. If we’re going to do this—if we’re going to force athletes to take risks that they might not feel entirely comfortable taking—I want them to embrace the kind of cynicism and anti-heroism that defined sports in the 1970s. I want to hear them swear at each other in empty arenas; I want them to rage at ownership, at management, at the media, at a president who uses athletes as pawns whenever he sees fit. I want them to question the very purpose of it, every single night, and to reflect the anger that’s coursing through this country. I want everything to feel like The Bad News Bears.
III. Drop Dead
Most of the best sports movies of the 1970s did not exactly embrace the gauzy traditionalism of their predecessors: Slap Shot (1977), about a failing minor-league hockey team, is arguably an even better and even darker movie than The Bad News Bears. In North Dallas Forty (1979)—based on Peter Gent’s excellent novel—Nick Nolte plays an aging football player who questions the cruelty and feudalism and brutality of the sport long before all those things worked their way into the mainstream. (Nancy Dowd, who wrote Slap Shot and did uncredited work on North Dallas Forty, might be the most underrated screenwriter of her era.) Breaking Away (1979) is about a bunch of scalawags who ride bikes; The Longest Yard (1974) is about a prison football team; Semi-Tough (1974) is a profane satire of both football and the new-age movement. Even the original Rocky (1976) is about a failed boxer who succeeds by failing on a grander scale; and Linklater’s masterpiece Dazed and Confused, while made in the 1990s, is set in 1976 at a high school where the star football player refuses to conform to authority.
But then, sports in the 1970s were kind of like that, too: A mirror of our own national failures. The American Basketball Association was an odd comedic mess that merged with the NBA the same year The Bad News Bears was released, and then the NBA was a struggling league until Larry Bird and Magic Johnson set it on a path to commercialism in the 1980s. The NFL in the 1970s was a slog, a boring sport in which the forward pass had essentially been locked down and the greatest franchise was owned by a maverick named Al Davis whose teams took pleasure in brutalizing their opponents.
And baseball in the 1970s was gritty and angry; baseball in the 1970s was epitomized by the pugnacity of Earl Weaver and the erratic profanity of Billy Martin. The Yankees of the late 1970s were a dysfunctional mess, fitting of a city that had essentially dropped dead.
Here is something else Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, said a few weeks back: The NBA’s return—in its Disneyworld lockdown bubble, without fans, without several players who are declining to participate, in a limited-series run that may feel more like an AAU summer league than the actual NBA playoffs—might prove “a respite from enormous difficulties people are dealing with in their lives right now.” I will say here that Adam Silver is one of the smartest men in sports, but this, to me, feels like some sentimental horseshit. I don’t want sports to be a respite; I want them to feel like an angry and cynical catharsis.
I want managers to kick dirt on umpires (from six feet away, of course); I want pitchers and hitters to scream about brushback pitches (from six feet away, of course). I want hardcore ugliness. I don’t want shiny uniforms and corporate messaging; I want hard slides and broken bats and scuffed baseballs and raised middle fingers. The same is true in football and basketball and soccer and hockey and everything else: If we’re really going to do this, let’s make it ugly as hell. Let’s fight authority on every level. Let’s flip the bird to anyone and everything.
This newsletter is very much a work in progress. Thoughts? Ideas for future editions? Contact me via twitter or at michaeliweinreb at gmail, or leave a comment below. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please subscribe and/or share it with others.
Big Hair and Plastic Grass, by Dan Epstein
Loose Balls, by Terry Pluto
North Dallas Forty, by Peter Gent
Badasses, by Peter Richmond
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, by Jonathan Mahler
Alright, Alright, Alright, by Melissa Maerz