In The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, an alcoholic who keeps himself one step above the gutter by working as a swimming pool-maintenance man. Once a pitcher for a Giants' farm team—a has-been who never really was—Buttermaker is bribed by a local honcho to coach his son's Little League team. The team, sponsored by Chico's Bail Bonds no less, includes an egghead spouting baseball statistics, a tub-o'-lard quoting his psychiatrist while stuffing his face and a would-be imitator of Henry Aaron. In short, twerps.
This is an article from the April 12, 1976 issue
Their bungling is set to a jaunty score. Balls ricochet around the infield as they glance off mitts and dribble from one player to another. There are mass collisions in left field, bouncing pitches and balls thrown home to the umpire while Catcher Engelberg (Gary Lee Cavagnaro), the human mitt, is taking another candy break.
In the first disastrous game, against last year's champs, a bleary-eyed Buttermaker shuffles out and halts the slaughter after the first half-inning of play with the score 26-0. He thereupon recruits hotshot pitcher Amanda Whurlizer (Tatum O'Neal), the daughter of his ex-girl friend, who is peddling maps of movie stars' homes to pay for ballet lessons that will shape her into a model. When challenged by Buttermaker as to whether she still has her stuff, she shows that she has not yet traded her glove for a tutu. She strides to the mound, and unfurls an assortment of spitters, curves, sinkers and knuckleballs (thrown by a double).
Although the film has all the ingredients for a crowd-pleaser—a lively script by Bill Lancaster, 26-year-old son of Burt, direction by Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Smile) and a capable cast—it is a long haul to the happy ending.
Matthau is amusing, but the kids with their routine wisecracks, whoops and jeers are disappointing. Their shenanigans are not up to the standard of the Little Rascals. The required dose of schmaltz comes in the dugout when Amanda tries to rekindle the relationship between Buttermaker and her mother. Tears flow, but who cares?
Because there is no explicit sex, bloodletting or exploding metal, the film is revolutionary by today's standards. But instead of a nice blend of sad and comic, profound and pathetic, we get only a hodgepodge. A cross between The Dirty Dozen and Lilies of the Field is hard to take.