The "team of lovable losers who put it all together under a coach with issues" is one of the staples of the sports movie. That applies not just to baseball, most notably perhaps in Major League, but we've also seen it in everything from gridiron (The Longest Yard) through to hockey (Slapshot or The Mighty Ducks). This is, however, perhaps unique in that the participants are largely pre-teens, and in many ways, this 1976 film foreshadows, and condemns, the "win at all costs" mentality that has crept increasingly into the higher levels of Little League as the years have gone by. That may explain why this was remade in 2005, with Billy Bob Thornton in the lead.
Here, however, the Bears' coach, Morris Buttermaker, is played by Walter Matthau, who is brought on to coach a team added, as the result of a lawsuit, to a Californian Little League system. It contains the worst of the worst: players whom no other team wants, or would want, as it make impeccably clear by the result of their first game. To help rescue things, Buttermaker recruits two more players. First is Amanda Whurlizer (Tatum O'Neal), a pitcher whom Buttermaker had trained, and who is also the daughter of an ex-girlfriend. The other is local delinquent and outfielder Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley, who'd go on to play fascist viglante Rorschach in Watchmen!).
The story proceeds from there pretty much as you'd expect, leading eventually - and I trust I'm not spoiling this for anyone - to a championship game against the much-hated Yankees. [Yep: even in Little League, everyone hates the MFYankees!] Coached by Buttermaker's nemesis, Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), it soon becomes clear that both men will do anything to come out on top, engaging in tactics that would have last week's subject, Ty Cobb, shaking his head in disbelief. Who will be victorious? And, in the end, is winning really the most important thing?
Given the problems lhe MLB Network had last week with the language in Cobb, I am not really expecting much better from this screening. I suspect the film's most memorable exchange will probably be reduced to incoherence, given it contains the line, "All we got on this team are a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron!" Certainly, given the amount of profanity coming out of the mouths of the young cast, it's highly-dubious the film would get the PG rating it received then, even if you discount entirely the smoking and drinking engaged in by... Well, not necessarily just the adults, either.
Screenwriter Bill Lancaster is the son of Burt, and based the character of Buttermaker on his father - who, of course, would go on to play Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham in Field of Dreams. It was O'Neal's second feature, having become the youngest person at the time to win an Oscar for her first, Paper Moon. But she wasn't the only actress considered for the role of Whurlizer: others who tried out included Kristy McNichol, Jodie Foster and Sarah Jessica Parker. The movie was a solid hit, making the top ten in box-office for the year: it spawned two (largely forgettable) sequels, and a TV series which ran for two seasons, and included Corey Feldman in the cast.
The pre-show starts at 6pm (Arizona) time, with Bob Costas talking to O'Neal - director Michael Ritchie and co-star Matthau both being no longer with us - and the film gets under way at 6:30. If you have cut your cable, so don't have the MLB Network, but do have Netflix, you can still play along, since both versions of the film are available for streaming. You'll have to pause it during the commercial breaks, however...