By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: From losers to winners.
Ex-minor league baseball player and now full-time pool cleaner Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) gets hired to coach a bunch of unskilled, untalented kids in a competitive baseball Little League. At first Buttermaker is only interested in collecting a paycheck and has no drive in teaching the kids the fundamentals or even in winning, but things change after the season opener when his team gets drubbed by the far superior Yankees. Buttermaker takes offence at their arrogant manager (Vic Morrow) and feels compelled to ‘show-him-up’. To do this he brings in the talented Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) to be the team’s new pitcher as well as Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) who is an excellent fielder and hitter, but as his competitive juices flow, so does his surly side making the game no longer fun to play for the kids.
Don’t be fooled because this is anything but a simple kid’s flick. Sure the kids can watch it and enjoy it, but the multi-layered story brings out many issues that the adults will be more than able to relate to. Director Michael Ritchie deftly picks-up on the many nuances of Little League culture and if one played in it or was involved in any capacity then this movie will tap into those memories and bring back a flood of nostalgia.
My only complaint is a missing side-story dealing with the parents attending the games. It is mentioned in passing how the adults are able to be friendly with each other as the season begins, but by the end they are usually no longer on speaking terms, but it would’ve been much more revealing had this been shown instead of just discussed.
The script was written by Bill Lancaster who was the son of legendary actor Burt Lancaster. He based the story of his own experiences of playing Little League ball and the Buttermaker character is supposedly a composite of his famous dad.
This also marks the fifth film that Ritchie directed dealing with the theme of competition. His first was Downhill Racer, which dealt with the sport of skiing, The Candidate dealing with a senatorial race, Prime Cut, which was about rival crime syndicates, and Smile about the ugly side of beauty pageants and while all those flicks were good this one is his best.
The film’s climactic game, which has the Bears taking on the mighty Yankees for the championship features many of baseball’s intricate tactics that will appeal to the seasoned fan, but still be straight forward enough for the novice to grasp. It also has the film’s most famous scene where the Yankees’ manager smacks his own son (Brandon Cruz), who was the team’s pitcher, when he doesn’t obey his father’s instructions. Then on the very next play, and in order to get back at his dad, the kid fields a grounder, but refuses to throw it to first base, which allows the opposing team to score an easy run.
It is intended that the viewer should side with kid, but I didn’t. For one thing the dad’s advice was good, since this hitter had already gotten some runs off of him earlier it made sense to pitch low and outside. Just because he kid wants to ‘strike him out’ doesn’t mean that he will or that it’s a good idea. Strategy is a part of the game and that’s what a manger is there for. What happens if this kid grows up and plays in the big leagues and then decides he doesn’t want to do what the manager tells him. How’s that going to go over?
The kid also seemed like an incredibly self-centered little brat. Supposedly he lives with his dad 24/7, so couldn’t he have picked some other time to get back at his old man instead of jeopardizing the game for the rest of his teammates who are counting on him to help win?
This also brings up the issue of who’s really the ‘mean manager’. It’s supposed to be Morrow, but Matthau in a lot of ways gets just as bad if not worse especially with the way he ends up treating Amanda making me almost surprised that she showed up the next day to play. To me it would’ve been more satisfying having one of the Bears players do to Matthau what the son did to his father and in my opinion Matthau would’ve deserved it more.
This then brings up the third issue which is the fact that Matthau has this extraordinary epiphany in the middle of the big game where he realizes in his zest to win he might’ve pushed things too far and decides to pull back. I realize this is the film’s central theme, which is that becoming overly competitive is not good and can turn otherwise nice people into assholes if they aren’t careful, but the shift comes off like a Jekyll and Hyde. Most of these types of games last for only an hour, so having a guy at the start of the hour come off as this relentless warrior willing to do whatever it takes to win only to end the game being this high minded idealist lecturing the other parents on how it’s important that all the children get a chance to play even if it means blowing the game seems too severe for such a short period of time.
I wasn’t completely happy about the Bears losing the big final game either. Normally I’d consider this a good thing because it works against the formula. It’s also beneficial for kids to realize that not everyone ends up with the big trophy or that ‘the good guys always win’, but more important to hold your head high and be proud of your accomplishments, yet I still remained a bit frustrated. You become so emotionally invested in them winning that it’s deflating when it doesn’t happen, but it’s still one of the best sports movies ever made either way!
End of Spoiler Alert!
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: April 7, 1976
Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes
Director: Michael Ritchie
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube