The Great American Pastime (1956): Hollywood, Little League, and the Post-World War II Consensus
This article was published in the Fall 2016 Baseball Research Journal.
Following the Second World War, the baseball genre film enjoyed considerable popularity with Hollywood filmmakers hoping to recapture the commercial success of The Pride of the Yankees (1942). As that film re-told Lou Gehrig’s life story, many of the postwar films were biographical pictures, including The Babe Ruth Story (1948), The Stratton Story (1949), The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), The Winning Team (1952), The Pride of St. Louis (1952), and Fear Strikes Out (1957). The postwar baseball genre also included lighter fare with fantasy films such as It Happens Every Spring (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951), Rhubarb (1951), and Damn Yankees (1958). The role of baseball within the postwar military-industrial complex was examined in Strategic Air Command (1955), featuring actor James Stewart of the United States Air Force Reserve and suggesting that a baseball star—or anyone for that matter—should sacrifice his career for the nation. Most of these films had relatively low budgets and earned some profits, but one of the least successful of the baseball films at the box office was The Great American Pastime (1956), which was made for $762,000 but earned only $430,000 in rentals.1 Nonetheless, this film—which examines the institution of Little League Baseball through the lens of a romantic comedy—is iconic for what it reveals about American society during the 1950s.
British journalist Godfrey Hodgson employed the term “liberal consensus” to describe postwar America, a perspective embraced by many scholars of the era.2 The consensus society included broad agreement upon such issues as the nuclear family, “traditional” gender roles (husband serving as breadwinner, wife performing domestic chores), a Judeo-Christian religious foundation, and the belief that an ever-expanding capitalist economic system would eventually bring the American dream within the grasp of every citizen. The major threat to the American consensus was the ideology of communism; thus, adherence to the principles of anticommunism was a pillar of the consensus society. Of course, the consensus concept glossed over fundamental inequities in itself and within American society, and during the 1960s, many women and minority groups refused to accept the second-class citizenship the consensus conferred. The consensus broke down, exposing the problems of race, gender, and class plaguing post-World War II America.
Despite the gap between myth and reality during the 1950s, the baseball genre films of the era, as exemplified by The Great American Pastime, emphasized the corporate values of consensus and cooperation rather than the more destructive threat of untamed individualism or unregulated capitalism which had culminated in the crisis of the Great Depression. The post-World War II era celebrated the organization man and the outer-directed individual who was driven by a desire to earn the respect of friends and associates.3 These values were not limited to the workplace; the rise of suburbia encouraged a conformist culture in which gender roles were rigidly constructed. Little League is an institution that grew and developed within the environs of suburbia, reflecting the notion that youth baseball was an activity that needed to better fit the modern American family.
by baseball as panacea: Little League would move young boys from the unregulated vacant lot into organized leagues where suburban fathers with greater leisure time would instruct their sons in the values of fair play and sportsmanship. Contrast this suburban idyll with the cinematic depiction of inner city juvenile delinquents found in Blackboard Jungle (1955), who used baseballs as weapons and lacked father figures.4 During the Cold War era, Little League also sought to instill values of patriotism and citizenship. Little League policies officially opposed Jim Crow, though the majority of participants were white. Meanwhile the organization promoted traditional gender roles by forbidding female participation. This emphasis on consensus values, however, did not prevent Little League from experiencing a bitter civil war that plagued the organization in the mid-1950s. As John M. Miller notes in a piece for Turner Classic Movies, The Great American Pastime was made with the full cooperation of Little League who sought a comedy that was “gentle and safe” after litigation had almost destroyed the enterprise.5 The Great American Pastime, thus, celebrates consensus values while acknowledging the threat of female sexuality which must be tamed. (These consensus values would be challenged in the 1960s by three elements exemplified in The Bad News Bears : multiculturalism, the women’s movement, and the individualism of the counterculture.)
Little League was established in 1939 by Carl Stotz, a clerk for the Pure Oil Company in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The father of a two-year old daughter, Stotz was a devoted baseball fan who enjoyed playing ball with his young nephews, Jimmy and Harold Gehron, who were six and eight years of age respectively. Stotz relates that the idea of Little League came to him after receiving a nasty scratch while playing catch in a crowded yard. While rubbing his injured ankle, Stotz proclaimed, “I’m gonna have a baseball team for boys, complete with uniforms and equipment. They’ll play on real fields like the big guys, with cheering crowds at every game.”6 Stotz shared the inspiration with his nephews who were excited about the idea, and Little League was born. The inaugural 1939 season for Little League included only three teams located in Williamsport.
Although the growth of Little League was slow during the Second World War, the organization expanded rapidly in the more affluent postwar environment and overwhelmed other fledgling youth baseball leagues. By 1948, Little League grew beyond the boundary of Pennsylvania with ninety-four leagues and a national tournament at the end of the season that would eventually become known as the Little League World Series. The rising organization also gained a corporate sponsor in US Rubber, providing a needed source of income, but corporate sponsorship eventually challenged Stotz’s personal control of the enterprise. In their history of Little League, Lance and Robin Van Auken argue that the growth of Little League allowed fathers and sons separated by the war an opportunity to become reacquainted. As for mothers and daughters, the Van Aukens conclude, “Mothers, also, were needed at Little League fields; they painted fences, corralled boys, worked in concession stands, and formed ladies’ auxiliaries. Daughters, if dutiful, helped their mothers in the stands, but often girls stood near the dugouts with autograph books, admiring the little baseball stars.”7
While perpetuating sexism and a passive role for young women, Little League’s record in regard to racial segregation was somewhat more progressive. In 1955, white South Carolina teams refused to play the all-black Cannon Street YMCA Little League team of Charleston. In response, Little League officials declared the Cannon Street team regional champions. However, since they had won by forfeit, they were not allowed to participate in the Little League World Series. (The Cannon Street team was invited to attend the festivities in Williamsport, though, and were greeted by crowds chanting “Let them play.”) Angered by Little League's refusal to support segregation, hundreds of Southern white teams left Little League Baseball in protest and joined a segregated youth baseball organization, Little Boys Baseball, Inc., which became Dixie Youth Baseball.8
As National Director and later Commissioner for Little League, Carl Stotz traveled throughout the nation promoting the organization. As he grew increasingly concerned about the commercialization of Little League, he began to quarrel with the governing board and its chair, Peter J. McGovern, a US Rubber executive from Detroit who moved to Williamsport to exercise greater control over the organization. Stotz clashed with the board over Sunday ballgames to make up for rain-outs in postseason play as well as international participation in the Little League World Series. According to Stotz’s friend Kenneth D. Loss, the Little League Commissioner “wanted the August tournament to remain national, not to become international. World Series, to him, meant the National and American Leagues’ best teams at the end of the season playing for the championship for that year. There were no big-league teams from outside the United States participating in that world series.”9 Nevertheless, Stotz was overruled by the board, and a team from Panama was invited to the Little League World Series in 1951.
In June 1955, Stotz returned from a promotional tour to find that in his absence Little League officials were granting charters—a privilege usually reserved for the commissioner. Believing that his organization was becoming commercialized and hierarchical, Stotz demanded that Little League return to the 1950 bylaws which conferred most power to the commissioner and held more board positions for volunteers rather than business representatives. When the board refused to honor Stotz’s demands, the commissioner sought to form a new association called “Organized Little League.” Board chair McGovern responded by suing Stotz for breach of contract. An injunction was issued to prevent Stotz from forming a rival organization, and after considerable bitterness and litigation the Little League civil war ended when an out-of-court agreement was reached in February 1956. Stotz was acknowledged as the founder of Little League, but he agreed to resign as commissioner and dissolve his rival association. In exchange, the board was to make good faith efforts to recruit volunteers and field representatives.10 Seeking to explain Stotz’s motivation, Kenneth Loss concluded that his friend “had conceived the idea and plan for Little League and had recruited sponsors, managers, a woman’s auxiliary, and other volunteers to bring it into being. He had lovingly nurtured it during World War II. He had set its high tone and inspired thousands of adults to see and act on his vision. He had almost single-handedly sought out and persuaded US Rubber to get into the act as an altruistic, not controlling sponsor.”11 The individualistic entrepreneur essentially was replaced by more corporate values reflective of the consensus society. While the dispute cost Stotz money and left the founder embittered, the organization he established in 1939 was able to withstand the Little League civil war with some 2,500 leagues organized and new applications arriving in Williamsport every day.
Another reason Little League was able to survive internal divisions and persevere as a postwar American institution was the degree to which the organization embraced the values of patriotism during the Cold War. Historian Richard O. Davies argues, “In an age when fears about disloyalty and communism gripped a society, and when it became increasingly evident that in order to succeed adults had to make their peace with big government and corporate organizations, the values that middle-class parents wanted to instill in their children were those of patriotism, discipline, acceptance of authority, and primacy of the group or organization to which one owed allegiance.” Thus, consensus values were the cornerstone of the Little League Pledge in which boys solemnly promised: “I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win but win or lose I will always do my best.”12 There was no room in Little League for anyone espousing atheistic communist ideas.
From 1950 to 1952, retired Army Colonel W. H. “Cappy” Wells produced the newsletter Little League Hits that was sent to every Little League president. The publication included Cold War patriotic advice along with coverage of Little League news. Wells also reflected corporate values as he was initially hired in 1949 by US Rubber to handle media relations for the Little League World Series. In the March 1951 edition of Little League Hits, Wells proclaimed that the baseball youth organization was promoting Americanism. The editor, however, was concerned that managers, who wanted to form their own teams, rather than follow the Little League policy of drafting players, might be promoting cliques rather than the melting pot of true Americanism. Wells relates the story of one town where residential areas were segregated according to social class—although this statement would seem to cover most American urban residential patterns. This segregation by class was leading to vandalism and gang violence, but Little League was able to save the day. Wells writes, “Those youngsters were not developing into the type of citizens we need and many of them were well on the road to juvenile delinquency. Then Little League was introduced. The Auction System was adopted. Youngsters from all walks of life found themselves on the same ball team. Every boyish gang and clique disappeared. The juvenile delinquency rate fell.” The idea of employing Little League as a means to negate Marxist class divisions also drew the support of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The anticommunist FBI chief praised Little League for promoting positive competition; concluding, “A clean, healthy body begets a clean, healthy mind, and the two are absolute essentials to good Americanism.”13
Right: Advertising billed the film as a comedy that would “keep us all in stitches.”
In 1953, Little League Hits became The Little Leaguer and was published in Williamsport rather than New York City, but a Cold War orientation remained an essential component of the League’s promotional activities. The Little Leaguer warned Americans in 1961 not to be concerned about the recession of 1960–61, asserting it was simply “one of the lowest booms we’ve had in some time,” while living conditions were far worse under communism. The Little League publication editorialized, “Things are so bad on the home front in Russia and in the critical food shortages in Red China there is possibility that the brush fire wires and push button riots have to be suspended while we feed them again. Sputniks to Venus do not help empty stomachs.” Dwight Eisenhower’s Attorney General, Herbert Brownell Jr., voiced support for the anticommunist principles of Little League, insisting, “The young Americans who compose the Little League will prove a poor target for the peddlers of godless ideology.” Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, who served on the board of Little League, echoed these sentiments, observing that communism and fascism were the products of nations that did not have the tradition of youth baseball, and “as long as American boys went to bed each night with baseball gloves under their pillows, American democracy was safe.”14
Extolled as an institution promoting American ideas of teamwork, belief in God, traditional values, patriotism, and anticommunism, Little League, nonetheless, was not without its critics. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine argued that Little League provided an avenue for the socialization of boys into men, but critics complained about the exclusivity of an organization that officially excluded girls until 1974 and failed to provide a place for boys who lacked the athletic abilities to be selected in the local Little League player draft.15 Another major issue with Little League was the presence of adults putting pressure on children to win games, while often heaping verbal and sometimes physical abuse upon team managers as well as umpires. In a 1963 piece for Atlantic Monthly, major league pitcher and author Jim Brosnan bemoaned the emphasis upon winning in Little League and described the organization as dominated by adults and “not a world the kids made.” Brosnan was especially critical of the Little League draft system which destroyed the selfesteem of many young boys, arguing, “Putting a price on a boy’s ability is obviously adult business.” The pitcher also expressed little respect for the volunteer coaches of Little League, insisting, “The people who run Little League are usually on the lower part of the sociological curve, guys who can’t quite make it in their business, marriage or social life. So they can take it out on the kids.” In the final analysis, Brosnan maintained Little League was not about building character, but rather winning was everything, writing, “Preadolescents are immature and can’t be expected to live up to the physical and emotional guidelines of older children—parents included. Winning games should not be given the importance that exists in the Little League age group.”16
Connecticut housewife Lorraine Hopkins supported Brosnan, observing that Little League was focused upon preparing boys for the corporate world. Speaking of Little Leaguers, Hopkins argued, “He’s sold his independence for security at the age of ten. Exhorted by crowds, fed by publicity, clothed in impersonal uniforms, he has foregone the joys of the cheerfully unorganized individual boy whose every summer day should be a little bit different from the one before.” With trophies, all-star teams, and championships, children no longer had the opportunity of organizing their own play. Hopkins concluded, “Little League is a long and dreary dress rehearsal of children acting out roles which grownups have not only assigned, but, worse still, have written.”17 The concerns expressed by Brosnan and Hopkins in the pages of Atlantic Monthly were supported by medical reports raising questions about the impact of Little League on the psychological development of young children.18
Little League countered this criticism and negative publicity around Stotz's ouster by cooperating with Hollywood in the production of The Great American Pastime—a picture that would extoll the virtues of Little League and traditional American values. The Great American Pastime was written by Nathaniel Benchley, the son of famed author and humorist Robert Benchley, and directed by Herman Hoffman, who moved on to a distinguished directing career in television.19 The film enjoyed the usually strong production values associated with the MGM studio and attracted a strong cast. The male lead of Bruce Hallerton was assigned to veteran stage and screen star Tom Ewell. The female leads were Ann Miller, a star performer in MGM musicals who was closing out her career at the studio, and Anne Francis, who was beginning a career that would include the leading role in the sexy television series Honey West (1965–66). In his study of baseball cinema, Hal Erickson found the casting of the film to be rather implausible as he could not imagine two such beautiful women as Miller and Francis fighting over the “ploddingly unromantic” Tom Ewell.20 Yet, Billy Wilder’s pairing of Marilyn Monroe with Ewell in The Seven Year Itch (1955) was quite successful at the box office, and MGM hoped to once again tap the comic potential of Ewell in a romantic lead. The Great American Pastime, however, lacked the cutting-edge performance of Monroe that gave The Seven Year Itch a sexual quality.
The Great American Pastime begins with Bruce Hallerton, an attorney in the small New York town of Willow Falls, having a drink and narrating how managing a Little League team got him into trouble with his family and community. The film then turns to a flashback beginning with a Hallerton family picnic. His wife Betty (Anne Francis) is taking a nap, and his son Dennis (Rudy Lee) is bored, tossing stones into the lake. Bruce seems to have little time for the family as he has brought along his briefcase and is doing paperwork during the picnic. The family returns home, and Bruce begins to watch his beloved New York Yankees on television. Dennis is not particularly interested in the ballgame, and when his father is called to the phone for legal advice, the boy takes the opportunity to change channels and commences watching a Western program. After his phone call, Bruce resumes watching the game. Betty is talking to her husband about planning a summer vacation to Mexico, but Bruce is focused on the baseball game and pays little attention to his wife’s conversation. This opening sequence presents Bruce as the consummate organization man who seems far more interested in work than family. Little League, however, will be introduced as an opportunity for family bonding through the great American pastime.21
The next day at work, Bruce is approached by colleagues who want him to manage a local Little League team. Bruce initially resists the idea, but his associates persist, and he surrenders to their arguments that managing the team will be good for business contacts, give him some time with his son, and the Mexican vacation could be postponed until after the baseball season. That evening Bruce comes home to find his wife starching the curtains on the stove, a representation of her domesticity. After fortifying his nerve with a drink, Bruce announces that the family vacation will be postponed until August as he will be managing the Panthers for the local Little League. Betty, who does not care for baseball, is unhappy, but Bruce convinces her that managing will provide some bonding time with Dennis, who does not seem particularly excited about playing baseball.
The film then shifts to the first day of practice, and an exhausted and out of shape Bruce is assisted by coach Buck Rivers (Dean Jones, who would later become a Disney star). Bruce then meets with players and emphasizes that winning is not everything and talks about the importance of fair play. When Bruce visits with the parents, however, it is quite clear that their emphasis is on putting together a winning team. Doris Patterson (Ann Miller), an attractive team mother, speaks to Bruce about how important it would be for her son Herbie’s (Raymond Winston) self-esteem to be the team’s pitcher as his father is deceased. Meanwhile, Bruce learns that Dennis is actually a good baseball player and has been drafted by the Tigers and their manager Ed Ryder (Judson Pratt) who is intent on fielding the most competitive team possible. With the opportunity for more father/son bonding time gone, Betty is even more dissatisfied with Bruce.
Note that the Panthers are an integrated team with a black third baseman who does not have a speaking part in the film. While The Great American Pastime addresses the issue of overly aggressive parents directly, the picture makes only this silent remark regarding racial integration.
As the film progresses, more members of the community place pressure on Bruce. A judge tells the attorney that his nephew is on the Panthers. Doris gives Bruce a ride in her convertible and continues to lobby for her son. A local banker and his wife invite Bruce and Betty for dinner so the banker can advocate for his son's role of team pitcher in exchange for sending legal business to Bruce’s firm. However, the boy is not much of a pitcher and shatters Bruce’s car window with an errant throw. The banker’s wife, meanwhile, warns Betty about the predatory Doris Patterson, who is not only a widow but a former actress. Doris symbolizes female sexuality uncontrolled by a husband, therefore potentially a threat to the suburban family. Making Doris a widow rather than divorcee undermines the sexually aggressive female image somewhat, but was more appropriate for a family film.
For their first game, the Panthers face the Tigers, and Ed Ryder’s competitive team dominates, winning 27–0. Although the patriotic theme of Little League is not concentrated upon in The Great American Pastime, the Pledge of Allegiance before the game is included. After the game, values of unity seem forgotten as the parents are angry with Bruce, and even Betty wonders if he should be using Herbie Patterson as the team’s pitcher. Fearing the encroachment of Doris Patterson, Betty decides to defend her marriage by assuming the duties of team scorekeeper and secretary. (In one scene, Doris invites the couple to dinner. Bruce fawns over her cooking and bonds with her over acting, while a bored Betty falls asleep.) The Panthers improve and win some games, but they are still dominated by the Tigers, while Bruce becomes increasingly concerned that Dennis is focused on winning at the expense of fair play. This fear is borne out in the next contest between the Panthers and Tigers. Dennis wins the game for the Tigers when he collides with the Panthers catcher and dislodges the ball. A fight ensues, and Bruce is critical of Dennis and censures his players for brawling. Several parents consider Bruce too soft and decide to pull their boys from the team, and a dejected Bruce is left with only a handful of players.
Later than evening Bruce receives a phone call from Doris, asking him to come console a distraught Herbie. As Bruce prepares to leave, Betty makes her anger with Bruce apparent. Betty assumes that she is about to lose her husband to Doris, but while he drives to the Patterson home, Bruce vows that he will inform Doris that he loves his wife and is not interested in a relationship with the attractive widow. After spending a few minutes calming down Herbie, Bruce has a drink with Doris. He announces that he is in love with Betty and cannot become involved with another woman. Doris is shocked and explains that she is not even sexually attracted to him. She asserts she is simply a mother trying to help her son find self-esteem and confidence within the structure of Little League. Thus, motherhood trumps sexuality and traditional gender roles are upheld. Nevertheless, the earlier flirtations seem to suggest a bit more attraction than the film’s conclusion seems willing to concede.
Following his uncomfortable confrontation with Doris, Bruce heads to a local bar where he becomes intoxicated, sharing drinks with Mr. O’Keefe (Bob Jellison), the father of “Man Mountain” O’Keefe (Todd Ferrell) who is the smallest and least athletic player on the Panthers. (Note that in this family film from the 1950s, the drinking of alcohol is frequently displayed, and the assumption is that the two inebriated men were guilty of driving under the influence.) When Bruce does not return home, Betty expects he is with Doris and proceeds to bolt the front door to the Hallerton home. Bruce and O’Keefe break the door open, and the mild-mannered O’Keefe informs Bruce that Ed Ryder’s Tigers only get rough with the Panthers because they are weak. Bruce vows that his team will henceforth play tough but stay within the rules. The film then turns to the final game of the season between the Tigers and Panthers, failing to consider how Bruce explained his night on the town to his wife.
The tough but fair Bruce seems to have regained the trust of his athletes who are playing with considerable enthusiasm, and Herbie Patterson is pitching well. The positive competitive values of Little League seem reinforced when parents watching the game discuss the fact that the league is not going to have Ed Ryder return as a manager due to the fact that he failed to embody the Little League principles of fair play. The game is tied going into the bottom of the last inning, when Bruce plucks “Man Mountain” O’Keefe from the bench to serve as a pinch runner. “Man Mountain” almost loses his pants in a run-down after he is picked off base, but he is able to score the winning run. There is no elaborate strategy, and “Man Mountain” should have been tagged out, but the film seems to suggest that in the final analysis the American values of fair play win out. After an enthusiastic celebration, Bruce is left alone picking up equipment as Betty leaves the field with Dennis.
The film then returns to Bruce’s narration with which the picture began. Bruce is alone and drinking, wondering what his summer of Little League really meant to him and his family. Suddenly the quiet is destroyed as Betty, Dennis, the Panthers, and the team parents surprise Bruce with a party in his honor. Doris Patterson is also there but clearly in the role of a supportive mother whose sexuality has being contained within the American consensus of Little League. Dennis is also proud of his father who taught him important lessons about winning and losing. The film concludes on a comic note with Bruce being asked if he would be willing to serve as a scout master with another institution that inoculated American boys with the values of God, patriotism, free enterprise, and heterosexuality: the Boy Scouts.
The innocuous film The Great American Pastime embraced consensus values and sought to restore Little League’s positive image after the resignation of the organization’s founder Carl Stotz, but failed to find much of an audience. Most reviewers ignored The Great American Pastime, but the critics who did bother to notice the film were mostly negative in their opinions. Variety complained, “The character Ewell is called upon to play is unfortunately the stereotype of an American father that television, in particular, has advanced. He’s a silly, bumbling nincompoop totally unaware of the realities that surround him. Ewell is frequently funny in a farcical way, but his character never emerges as a real person.” The Hollywood Reporter was a little more supportive of the film and Ewell’s performance; asserting, “Tom Ewell is the closest thing we have today to the late Robert Benchley, with the same ability to render a flat tone with humorous effect.”22 The bottom line is that the character of Bruce Hallerton reflects the type of loving but often befuddled father one found in television comedies such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952–66). With television increasingly undermining the profitability of Hollywood films, it was incumbent upon the motion picture industry to offer viewers special effects or adult themes unavailable on the tube in their suburban homes. Unfortunately, The Great American Pastime represented the type of fare regularly programmed on television during the 1950s.
Scholars of baseball cinema also tend to be dismissive of The Great American Pastime. In Great Baseball Films, Rob Edelman describes the MGM feature as a strictly formulaic film in which Bruce Hallerton is a “stereotypically inept suburban husband-father. But his essential decency prevails, and he becomes the hero as he leads his boys to the league title.”23 Hal Erickson devotes a bit more attention to The Great American Pastime in his Baseball Filmography, but his conclusions are similar. Erickson notes that the picture was the first feature film to focus upon Little League, and he is generally supportive of how the organization was depicted on the screen, noting, “There is the expected comedy inherent in the concept of flabby, middle-aged adults living their dreams of glory through their children, but the satiric thrust is gentle to the point of being antiseptic. The young ballplayers perform vigorously in the film’s sporadic game sequences, exhibiting more pep and enthusiasm than is found in 90 percent of the films about baseball.”24 Neverthelss, Erickson argues that the filmmakers lost their way in the subplot of Doris Patterson threatening the Hallerton marriage which comes to dominate the film. In this observation, however, Erickson tends to miss the extent to which Little League baseball and the institution of marriage reflected traditional values under assault from the forces of change, including the women’s movement, that would eventually rip asunder the postwar consensus during the 1960s and 1970s.
The film’s embrace of traditional values is unapologetic, leading some proponents of The Great American Pastime to lament the contemporary cynicism of American film and society while nostalgically looking to the 1950s as a golden age. In a review for the Internet Movie Data Base, for example, one user comments on enjoying the film which is “just full of old fashion fun with Tom Ewell and the rest of the cast,” while another user concludes, “Overall, it is a well paced, enjoyable film with a simple plot and gentle humor spread evenly through its running time. Viewing may prove a refreshing relief from the comedies being produced in the present day.”25 Although not as profitable as some of the baseball genre films from the 1950s, The Great American Pastime well reflects the values of the post-World War II consensus. The extent to which Little League was part of the establishment that would come increasingly under siege in the 1960s and '70s is exemplified by the popular The Bad News Bears (1976)—a film reflective of countercultural values seeking to expose the hypocrisy of American institutions of conformity such as Little League.
There was certainly no institutional support from Little League for director Michael Ritchie’s 1976 film. In The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a former minor league pitcher who now cleans swimming pools for a living and spends most of his spare time consuming beer. He is recruited to coach the Bears, an incompetent group of young boys who are better at swearing than playing baseball.26 They are sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds and their nemesis is the aggressive and bullying Yankees coached by Roy Turner (Vic Morrow). To make his team more competitive, Buttermaker recruits Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O’Neal), the daughter of his former girlfriend, to pitch for the Bears. She, in turn, employs her feminine wiles to entice juvenile delinquent and outstanding athlete Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) onto the team. Behind Amanda and Kelly, the Bears begin to win and meet the Yankees for the league championship. During the course of the championship game, Buttermaker realizes that he, too, has become consumed with winning. He comes to his senses and allows all of his players to participate. The result is that the Bears lose the game, but the team has gained a sense of camaraderie and self-respect. Buttermaker then gives all his players a bottle of beer which they drink and spray on the Yankees, all the while laughing hysterically and poking fun at those who take Little League baseball too seriously.
Hal Erickson asserts that Michael Ritchie was selected to direct the film because in a series of pictures, Downhill Racer (1969), The Candidate (1972), and Smile (1975), he demonstrated “the dark side of pursuing the American dream.”27 The Bad News Bears resonated with the more antiestablishment values of the era and grossed over $25 million domestically; making it the fourth biggest moneymaker for the summer of 1976. This commercial success led to several sequels which lacked the punch of the original. Baseball film historian Rob Edelman praised the film as “immensely likable and intelligent” in its critique of the adults who often run Little League programs. Edelman concludes, “The film offers a reminder that the purpose of Little League is to have fun. All the kids should be allowed to participate, not just the most athletically gifted. Little League, after all, is for the kids, not their parents or coaches.”28
An insightful essay on The Bad News Bears is provided by historian David Zang in his book Sports Wars: Athletes in the Age of Aquarius. Terming The Bad News Bears as “one of the most subversive sports movies ever made,” Zang argues that the depiction of Little League provided by Ritchie and his screenwriter Bill Lancaster was a product of a changing zeitgeist in America brought about by the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, and a youth counterculture questioning the consensus and traditional values. Before The Bad News Bears, baseball films such as The Great American Pastime and the postwar biographical pictures presented “the fate of athletes and teams as an extension of unimpeachable national character.” Moving beyond the depiction of an America dominated by white males, Zang argues that Ritchie’s film presents a more inclusive nation and team. The bottom line for Zang is that The Bad News Bears illustrates that “stripped down to its basest humanity, devoid of its protective façade, sports might not be such a noble pursuit after all, much less an institution that ought to stand for national temperament or capacity.” Placing The Bad News Bears firmly within the historical context of the Vietnam War, Zang concludes, “In some ways, the championship game in Bears and its high stakes replicated the Vietnam War, muddling the sense of rights and wrongs, ... the value of victory, and the means of obtaining it.”29
While The Bad News Bears enjoyed commercial success in 1976, the parallel popularity of Rocky that same year indicates the association of sport with national character was not passé. In fact, sports films of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Hoosiers (1986), Field of Dreams (1989), and Rudy (1993), restored to primacy the connection between sport and character. The Hollywood establishment watched the storming of the barricades during the 1960s and 1970s and responded with a reaffirmation of the relationship between sport and national character—albeit casting a wider net in defining those participating in the national narrative.
A similar characterization may be employed to describe other establishment institutions such as Little League who weathered the crisis in values of the 1960s and 1970s and maintained influence within the resurgent conservative society symbolized by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In the twenty-first century, Little League faces challenges from other sports such as youth soccer, but the primacy of Little League within American culture remains significant as is evident with the lucrative contract the organization has with ESPN and ABC television to broadcast the Little League World Series. According to Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president of programming and acquisitions, “For us, it is perfect timing to have a two-week tournament pre-football. It delivers good ratings for us.”
Of course, these multi-million dollar business arrangements continue to raise questions about the commercialization of Little League as well as the perennial issue of adults organizing children’s games. In addition, Little League teams from the United States have not fared well against international competition such as clubs from Taiwan, leading to allegations of cheating on eligibility requirements. Major League Baseball is concerned about the lack of participation by black youth in Little League and youth baseball in general. Thus, there was considerable celebration in 2014 when the Jackie Robinson West club from Chicago became the first all African-American Little League team to win the US championship, but the title was later voided due to violations of Little League recruiting and boundary rules. A less controversial sense of inclusion was provided by the pitching of African American Mo’ne Davis, who became the first girl in Little League World Series history to pitch a shutout and was the first Little Leaguer featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (August 25, 2014). Mo’ne, however, remains the exception rather than the norm as Little League is still essentially a male enclave. Little League continues to face many challenges, but it still resonates within American culture.30
In 1956, Little League cooperated with Hollywood to showcase consensus values and counteract negative public relations. While by no means a great work of Hollywood cinema, The Great American Pastime represented the post-World War II consensus values of patriotism, fair play, and cooperation which Little League sought to extol. Decades later, The Bad News Bears provided a countercultural, and many would say more realistic, appraisal of the values espoused by The Great American Pastime. Little League, like other establishment institutions, has responded to demands for change by becoming more inclusive while maintaining core principles. But while Little League enjoys a central role in the perpetuation of the cultural ideals equating youth sports with American values, and exhibits considerable financial clout today with its multi-million dollar television contract, the essential questions about elitism, money, and adults dominating what should be a child’s game persist.
RON BRILEY is a long-term SABR member whose work on baseball has been published in NINE, Baseball Research Journal, National Pastime, and various historical journals. He is the author of five books and taught history for 38 years at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his teaching was honored by organizations such as the American Historical Association. He has followed the Astros/Colt .45s since 1962.
- 1. “The Great American Pastime,” Internet Movie Data Base, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt049277/ (accessed January 15, 2016)
- 2. Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time (New York: Doubleday, 1976); and William Chafe. The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- 3. William H. Whyte Jr., The Organization Man (New York: Doubleday, 1955); and David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny, The Lonely Crowd (New York: Doubleday, 1955).
- 4. For a discussion of Blackboard Jungle see Peter Biskind, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 197-217.
- 5. John M. Miller, “The Great American Pastime,” Turner Classic Movies, http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/76837/The-Great-American-Pastime/articles.html (accessed January 29, 2016).
- 6. Carl Stotz as told to Kenneth D. Loss, A Promise Kept: The Story of the Founding of Little League Baseball (Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania: Zebrowski Historical Services Publishing Company, 1992), 3.
- 7. Lance and Robin Van Auken, Play Ball!: The Story of Little League Baseball (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 51.
- 8. Chris Lamb, “Let Them Play!: The Cannon Street All-Stars and the 1955 Little League World Series,” Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, 22 (Fall 2013): 1–10. Dixie League Baseball continues to operate in eleven Southern states, but policies of racial segregation have been dropped.
- 9. Stotz and Loss, A Promise Kept, 175.
- 10. For an overview of the Little League civil war in 1955 see Van Auken, Play Ball!, 67–85.
- 11. Stotz and Loss, A Promise Kept, 179.
- 12. Richard O. Davies, America’s Obsession: Sports and Society Since 1945 (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994), 118–19.
- 13. Quoted in Van Auken, Play Ball!, 64.
- 14. Ibid. Ford Frick quoted in “Game to Ride Out All Threats, Frick Tells Rotary Club,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1951, 4.
- 15. Gary Alan Fine, With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). In 1950, Kathryn Johnston played Little Little baseball in Corning, New York; posing as a boy. Little League responded to her presence by adopting a rule that banned female participation. A law suit was brought in 1974 by the families of Frances Pescaore and Jenny Fulle that opened Little League to girls. For baseball, Little League, and girls see Jennifer Ring, Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
- 16. Jim Brosnan, “Little Leaguers Have Big Problems—Their Parents,” Atlantic Monthly, 211 (March 1963): 117–20.
- 17. Lorraine Hopkins, letter to Atlantic Monthly, quoted in Davies, America’s Obsession, 121.
- 18. “Beleaguered Little Leaguers,” New England Journal of Medicine, 270 (1964): 1015; Jay J. Coakley, “Play, Games, and Sport: Developmental Implications for Young People,” Journal of Social Behavior, 33 (1980): 99-118; Creighton J. Hale, “Athletics for Pre-High School Age Children,” The Journal of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 30 (December 1959): 19-21; and Steven J. Overman, The Youth Sports Crisis: Out of Control Adults, Helpless Kids (New York: Praeger, 2014).
- 19. For background on the production of The Great American Pastime see Miller, “The Great American Pastime.”
- 20. Hal Erickson, The Baseball Filmography, 1915 through 2001 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2001), 221-222.
- 21. The Great American Pastime, dir. Herman Hoffman (Burbank, California: Warner Home Video, 2012), DVD.
- 22. Variety and Hollywood Reporter quoted in Miller, “The Great American Pastime.”
- 23. Rob Edelman, Great Baseball Films: From Right Off the Bat to A League of Their Own (New York: Citadel Press, 1994), 171.
- 24. Erickson, Baseball Filmography, 222–23.
- 25. “The Great American Pastime,” Internet Movie Data Base, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049277/reviews (accessed January 31, 2016).
- 26. The Bad News Bears, dir. Michael Ritchie (Hollywood, California: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2002), DVD.
- 27. Erickson, Baseball Filmography, 76–77.
- 28. Edelman, Great Baseball Films, 174-175.
- 29. David W. Zang, Sports Wars: Athletes in the Age of Aquarius (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2001), 140–55.
- 30. For Little League today see William C. Rhoden, “A Mound Becomes a Summit: Mo’ne Davis dominates a Little League World Series,” The New York Times, August 17, 2014; John Ourand, “ESPN Completes Deal to Lock Up LLWS through ’22,” Sports Business Journal, August 26, 2013, http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2013/08/26/Media/LLWS.aspx (accessed January 4, 2016); George Castle, Jackie Robinson West: The Triumph and Tragedy of America’s Favorite Little League Team (New York: Lyons Press, 2015); and Junwei Tu, Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).