The flutterball style of The Baseball Bunch, a syndicated half-hour show for kids that was first aired on May 2 and will be shown every weekend until Labor Day, found a comfortable groove when host Johnny Bench smacked a Tug McGraw pitch into a neighboring solar system.
"I guess my changeup didn't fool you," said McGraw.
"Changeup!" said Bench. "I thought that was your Peggy Lee fastball."
"Is that all there is?" the Reds' catcher croaked in a cigar-butt imitation of Miss Lee's torchy ballad. "Is that all there is? Then let's keep swinging."
That's about the way hardball is played on The Baseball Bunch, a cross between a Pee Wee league clinic and vintage Saturday morning Bullwinkle. Bench heads a pickup team of sandlotters consisting of a large, slightly manic Chicken and eight kids who are cheerful beyond all belief. The Chicken, for some obscure reason web-footed, is a goofball. He mugs and crashes around the field and trips over foul lines—in short, a target for a tranquilizer dart.
In one early show the Chicken threw a strike past a plucky Pete Rose. "Now you're cooking, Chicken," said Rose, looking as irascible as a schoolboy who's just had his lunch money swiped. The Bunch bit on that line and found it mighty tasty. When the Chicken fouled off a McGraw fastball, Tug ran through one of his batty routines.
"That's a Chicken dance," he told the Bunch.
"What?" they asked.
"A Chicken dance is a fowl ball."
Screwball humor like Tug's makes the show pop, when the jokes are working. When they're not, the show is about as flashy as a Double A utility infielder. But that's not so bad, for the heart of The Baseball Bunch is inside baseball, taught by the guys who really know it. Rose shows the Bunch how to execute a belly slide; Tom Seaver demonstrates how a pitcher covers first base; Bucky Dent teaches them how to break in a glove with shaving cream. Even home-run king Sadaharu Oh is scheduled to appear later in the summer to talk (through an interpreter) about the art of hitting and the Zen of Japanese baseball.
McGraw talks about the Zen of tossing his changeup. "It's a white demon," he says. "It's nothin' shakin' but the bacon, nothin' cookin' but the beans in the pot, and they ain't cookin' 'cause the water ain't hot. It's the same old soup; they just keep warmin' it up."
But what about a curveball, Tug? asks a girl Bunchie. "A curveball!" he screams. "What do you want to throw a curve for? It can hurt your pretty elbows. It can hurt your pretty shoulders. You twist your bones in weird ways, and your bones are still soft. Your muscles aren't strong. And your tendons are weak."
The players' tips are intercut with film clips of game action. There is historic footage of past greats like Connie Mack, John J. McGraw and Mickey Mantle as well as shots of present-day big-leaguers that illustrate the pitfalls of such faux pas as trying to one-hand fly balls, not getting into the proper position to field a grounder and missing the cutoff man.
Adults might find the appearance of Tommy Lasorda as the Dugout Wizard toward the close of every show the most diverting. The Dodger manager materializes in a cloud of smoke, wearing a rhinestone-studded tiara, lavender feathers and the turban of a store-front swami. He intones Gandalfian phrases like "Let the manager do the talking."
Former Cincinnati skipper Sparky Anderson, who now manages the Tigers, appeared on a recent show to do some talking. He and Bench threw odds-'n'-evens fingers. Anderson won.
"Come on, Spark," said Bench. "Let's make it two out of three."
"I will not."
"Aw, come on. Remember how I went out there when I was hurt. I'm not asking for much, Spark."
"No. For nine years I gave in to you."
But Sparky gives in. Bench wins the next two rounds, which goes to show managers don't know when to shut up.
The TV Bunch learning all this is nice and clean and well pressed. They're a suburban mom's dream team, no bruises, no skinned knees, no ripped dungarees. They have names like Freddie, Louie and Ozzie—a troupe of second-generation Mouseketeers who don't look as if they'll ever play for anybody but the William Morris Agency.
Bench isn't yet the Johnny Carson of kids' baseball shows, but he's not absolutely wooden. He doesn't emcee the program with the ease with which he calls games for the Reds, but he gets the job done. And the 8-year-old baseball fans who watch the show would probably tune in just to see Johnny chase the Chicken for half an hour. Along the way they'll get some sound advice about the fundamentals of the game.