August 8, 2016
1976 was supposed to be a special year for the United States. It was the American Bicentennial. Instead, President Gerald Ford was barely holding down the fort at Pennsylvania Avenue as the nation shuddered and slept off the remaining hours of a bad trip through Vietnam and Watergate. Not everyone felt so nostalgic or patriotic for 200 years of Americana.
Still, on July 4th 1976 the nation threw a 200th Birthday Party. People wanted to forget about things they knew they could no longer control. Americans were proud of their country and were determined to show it.
Joliet celebrated with the opening of Bicentennial Park and the burial of a time capsule:
On July 4, 1976 a time capsule measuring 94″x 34″ x 34″ was buried under a ten ton rock with a brass plaque instructing that the time capsule should be opened in 100 years.
Author Dan Epstein has written two books on 1970s culture and baseball. On Monday, August 8th Epstein and Chicago Tribune film critic Nick Digilio hosted a screening of The Bad News Bears at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. It has been 40 years since the release of this iconic 70s film.
WillCountyBaseball.org made a road trip to one of this author’s favorite Chicago institutions to watch The Bad News Bears on the big screen. WCB.org got the chance to talk to Epstein, Digilio, and the General Manager of the Music Box Ryan Oestreich.
Dan Epstein was kind enough to spend about 20 minutes with WCB.org. We talked about growing up as GenXers in the 70s. The decade was a cynical time and the kids were beginning to sense the national “malaise” that President Jimmy Carter notoriously described on national television.
Listen to a conversation with author Dan Epstein:
The 70s was the last decade that baseball was the king of sports. Kids still hammered out the neighborhood law and order spending hours and hours of summertime playing baseball. The local little league diamonds were spotlighted stages on glorious summer nights where a confused and frustrated generation of adults played out their own Shakespearean comedies and tragedies.
The Bad News Bears captures all of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly of youth baseball was real – and it is still very real. Today’s splintered and sanitized travel baseball is a much more sophisticated and civil affair; but travel teams are nomadic. Little League in the 70s was your town or neighborhood and everyone paid the same registration fee.
Back in the day we saw everything. I can remember ice cream after the game – if we won. I can remember the sometimes uncomfortable banter between adults and kids. One time our catcher complained his hand hurt from catching fastballs. One coach chuckled as he suggested using a “falsie.” He didn’t anticipate the inevitable.
“What’s a falsie?” Now, the other coaches started laughing. We figured it out.
I also saw a kid sobbing at the end of games because he knew his dad was going to whip his ass for playing a lousy game. I saw a drunk baseball fan walk in on a Saturday night game. He leaned on the bleachers and heckled a 13 year old. The mother of the kid marched across the stands and slapped him hard across the face. There were plenty of dustups – but never cops or an interruption of play.
It wasn’t all bad. Minorities, and especially women, were sick and tired of the same old crap. Most people were happy to grow along with necessary social change. And the 70s were a time when people learned how to relax. Weekends were full of adults-only socializing. Babysitters around the country were letting kids stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live before mom and dad returned home from their night out.
The timeless generational battle between mentor and student was changing dynamically. Since the beginning of time teenagers have thought about saying F-you to their parents. Generation Xers were the first children to say F-you to parents, teachers, coaches, etc.
The kids were acutely aware of the dysfunction in their midst; and if our parents were fed up with the world around us then we were too. Traditional authority figures like coaches were dealing with a whole new ball game.
The Tao of Buttermaker’s Bears
Walter Mathau’s Morris Buttermaker is one of those guys who walked off a diamond in the 70s and has never been allowed to return. He is an alcoholic, which is no small part of the film. But he’s a decent guy who learns a lot from his team and a lot about the future. Several scenes from the film capture the Tao of Buttermaker’s Bears.
Buttermaker recruits a long lost sort of step-daughter to pitch for the Bears. Their relationship was typical of the new sort of family structure that evolved in the 70s. Watch closely as Buttermaker introduces Amanda to the team. Tanner’s ensuing racist and sexist tirade is greeted with a collective shrug from his teammates – especially after Amanda shows she can play.
In the climactic championship game Buttermaker goes all Lombardi on the Bears. They react with classic Generation X style to old school authoritarianism:
Buttermaker realized, at that very moment, what any decent 21st century coach knows – the glory days of sideline screaming and absolute control are over. Today’s kids, like Buttermaker’s Bears, simply won’t respond to that type of adult behavior. It doesn’t work for anyone.
Dan Epstein’s research and writing on 70s culture and baseball explores how these transformations in our society played out in mainstream culture and on Major League playing fields. Major leaguers sported afros and facial hair in defiance of their owners. They played with a new kind of individuality that used to be regarded as “hot dogging.”
The Oakland As won three World Series in a row from 1972-74. They played with a fury and recklessness driven by hatred of their owner Charlie Finley. The New York Yankees won the 1977 and 1978 World Series as Billy Martin threatened and cajoled recalcitrant players like Reggie Jackson. Martin fought his own public battles with dictatorial owner George Steinbrenner.
Major league stars, along with other athletes and performers, increasingly understood their significant earning power. Why shouldn’t they be able to capitalize on their product? Curt Flood refused to be traded like property and took his case to the Supreme Court in 1969. By the end of the 70s MLB players were flexing their new economic self-consciousness via free agency.
Professional players were acting on America’s new social awareness, and they weren’t afraid to talk about issues that affected their families. Roberto Clemente talked about living these ideals:
“They say, ‘Roberto, you better keep your mouth shut because they will ship you back.’ [But] this is something from the first day I said to myself: I am in the minority group. I am from the poor people. I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going to be treated like a human being. I don’t want to be treated like a Puerto Rican, or a black, or nothing like that. I want to be treated like any person.”
Like so many others, he was heartbroken by the news of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. But unlike so many others, he put that pain into practice. His Pirates team, which had 11 players of color, was scheduled to play its season opener against the Astros on April 8, one day before King’s funeral. But because of a resistance led by Clemente, the game was moved to April 10, so that it would not overshadow the burial of one of America’s great Civil Rights leaders.
Some guys were quiet and steady as the new role models. Some were open and honest. Black and Latino ballplayers voiced their own diversity. Black, brown, or white – they weren’t about to be reduced to racial stereotypes. Hank Aaron was a noted Civil Rights leader. Dick Allen smoked cigarettes in the dugout and educated white reporters about the realities of being a black man in white society.
Kelly Leak’s reputation in the North Valley Little League is summed up by Cleveland, the league’s Equipment Manager mom.
“I can’t help it. I really hate that kid.”
Leak is a chain smoking juvenile delinquent who terrorizes all the league’s attempts to provide a wholesome baseball experience. The teenaged anti-hero wasn’t new to film in 1976. Movies like the British 1962 adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner used sports as a backdrop to expertly examine the new Western society that emerged after World War II.
Kids like Kelly Leak or Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner may be athletic savants, but they’re not about to spend their God-given talent on things like trophies and status. They compete because they love the sport and how it makes them feel.
We all grew up with kids like this. They didn’t care enough about sports to put up with a lunatic adult telling them how to think and talk. They just walked away. And we all know that sometimes these were the very best athletes in town.
Michael Ritchie, director of The Bad News Bears, was acutely aware of kids like Kelly Leak. Kelly was a new school leader peers could respect. 1979 films like Over the Edge and The Warriors portrayed teenagers leading kids with more wisdom and decency than any adults in their orbit. Kids that grew up the 70s were heading into the 80s ready to take on The Man.
The Music Box Theatre: Watching Big Screen Classics
WillCountyBaseball.org talked to Ryan Oestreich. Ryan is the General Manager of the Music Box and a film historian. We talked about the significance of films like The Bad News Bears and why places like the Music Box are such treasures. Where else can you see a 40-year old movie classic in pristine 35mm?
WillCountyBaseball.org: Ryan, can you explain the purpose of the Music Box and events like The Bad News Bears 40th Anniversary Screening?
Ryan Oestreich: “The Music Box Theatre believes in bringing unique experiences to movie goers. As most people know the historic status and atmosphere of the theatre already does this for movie goers. However, we like to find ways to bring even more enjoyment or engagement to the movie going experience.
“With something like The Bad News Bears 40th Anniversary and conversation, we go out of our way to bring back the classic films, or movies that should be considered as such, to be revisited, or seen for the first time on the big screen, with a large group of people, in a one night, event driven program, making it so more people come out, and a larger audience can watch the film together.”
WCB.org: Why do think the Music Box is such a Chicago institution, and why do think it should be destination for people all over the Chicago area?
Ryan Oestreich: “We believe in great programming, and a great movie going environment (and we take this in ways of atmosphere to customer service). And of course we want the best projection possible, going out of our way to find classic films on 35mm prints or making sure they’re played on the new digital standards. We don’t want to just show any movie. We want to show interesting films, classics, entertaining or thought provoking, AND we want to play a little of something for all tastes and genres.
“We try to have a diverse program, whether it’s the most breath-taking new documentary, or an incredible new drama from Europe, or 2001: A Space Odyssey on 70mm. We have created annual traditions: Sing Along Sound of Music with a costume contest every Thanksgiving weekend, our 32nd year of Christmas Sing-Along double feature (It’s A Wonderful Life and White Christmas) in December, our 24-hour Music Box of Horrors, and new events like our 70mm Film Festival.
“Not only do we maintain traditions of audience loved and attended cinematic events, but we build on these, and add in new traditions, or create special one-night events like the 40th anniversary of Bad News Bears. Simply, we believe in the power of watching great movies in a theater with an audience.”
WCB.org: And I know you grew up after the 70s, but how do think films like The Bad News Bears and Over the Edge express a unique generational angst that emerged in the 70s?
Ryan Oestreich: “This is a bigger question. You need to look at all the interesting, new films that came out of Hollywood in the 70s. Basically, the studios lost their way in making films for the masses, and needed to bring in new directors in the 70s to truly capture and reflect the 70s world. People like Kubrick, Friedkin, Coppola and Scorsese, Ashby, and even Ritchie. Of course many other directors can be given credit here.
“And in this time when Hollywood started experimenting with new directors, many new stories and voices started to be reflected in movies. One of these was the generational angst of GenX.
“However, I don’t think we should diminish the power of these films to only speak to that generation. I am on the older side of the millennial generation and when I saw these movies in my teens, I strongly connected with these characters and their stories. So, even though I didn’t connect with style of talk or dress, I still understood their struggles for voice and identity. And this brings me back to the power of cinema, and how it needs to be seen again or first time in a theater where an audience can react collectively.”
Main Photo from The Bad News Bears, 1976.
“Dan Epstein on ‘Stars and Strikes’: Epstein takes a nostalgic look back at baseball in the bicentennial year of 1976,” from Chicago Tribune, March 28, 2014.
Bad News Bears 40-year anniversary articles:
“Good news, we found the Bears,” New York Daily News, April 2, 2016.
“Why ‘Bad News Bears’ Is the Greatest Baseball Movie Ever Made: In honor of its 40th anniversary, we break down why this Little League movie is a sports-movie MVP,” by Dan Epstein for Rolling Stone, April 7, 2016.