The original screenplay was written by Bill Lancaster. Notable was the score by Jerry Fielding, which is an adaptation of the principal themes of Bizet's opera Carmen.
Immediately prior to the events of the film, Bob Whitewood (Ben Piazza) a city councilman and attorney, files a lawsuit against a competitive Southern California Little League for excluding the least athletically skilled children (including his son Toby) from playing. To settle the lawsuit, the league agrees to form an additional team—the Bears—which is composed of the worst players. To manage the team, Whitewood enlists the services of Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a former minor-league baseball player and an alcoholic who cleans swimming pools for a living.
On his first day as coach, Buttermaker visits the team. It includes a near-sighted pitcher named Rudy Stein (David Pollock), an overweight catcher named Mike Engleberg (Gary Lee Cavagnaro), a foul-mouthed shortstop named Tanner (Chris Barnes) with a Napoleon complex, an outfielder, Ahmad Abdul Rahim (Erin Blunt) who dreams of emulating his idol Hank Aaron, two non-English-speaking Mexican immigrants, a withdrawn (and bullied) boy named Timmy Lupus, and a motley collection of other "talent". Shunned by the more competitive teams (and competitive parents), the Bears are outsiders, sponsored by Chico's Bail Bonds. In their opening game against the top-notch Yankees, who are coached by the aggressive and competitive Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), they do not even record an out, giving up 26 runs before Buttermaker forfeits the game while the Yankees start ridiculing the Bears.
The next day, a dejected Bears team--except Tanner, who had fought the entire seventh grade and had the bruises to show it--tries to quit the season and turn in their uniforms, but Buttermaker decides to become a true coach for the kids. He tells them that he is the one who had quit, that quitting is a tough thing to overcome, and that they need to get back on the field. When the boys say their vote to quit is final, Buttermaker rises up in anger, tells them that his vote is the only one that counts on the team, and profanely threatens them into getting back on the field. In fear and respect, the boys run out on the field; and Buttermaker starts teaching them how to play baseball. They then lose the next game 18-0, but they finished the game and even got a man on base. Buttermaker rewards their efforts with hot dogs and soft drinks, showing that they are coming together as a team.
Realizing the team is still nearly hopeless, Buttermaker recruits a couple of unlikely prospects: first up is sharp-tongued Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O'Neal), a skilled pitcher (trained by Buttermaker when she was younger) who is the 11-year-old daughter of one of Buttermaker's ex-girlfriends. She now peddles maps to movie-stars' homes. Amanda tries to convince Buttermaker that she has given up baseball, but then she reveals that she had been practicing "on the sly". Amanda makes a number of outlandish demands (such as imported jeans, modeling school, ballet lessons, etc.) as conditions for joining the team. Buttermaker asks, "Who do you think you are, Catfish Hunter?" Amanda responds, "Who's he?"
With Amanda on the team, the Bears become competitive, but after another loss in which Lupus drops a fly ball and allows the winning score, Tanner grows enraged at Lupus. Buttermaker instills in his team the concept of "team wins" and "team losses." The next day at the snack bar, Tanner shuns Lupus for his apparently gross eating habits. After Lupus moves away, Tanner witnesses Joey Turner, son of the Yankees' coach Roy, start harassing Timmy Lupus at the snack bar, first taking away Lupus' hat, then filling it with mustard and ketchup and throwing it back on Lupus' head. Tanner then confronts Joey and shoves his burrito in Turner's face, and a fight ensues in which Tanner is stuffed in a garbage can. Lupus expresses his appreciation for Tanner taking up for him. Tanner responds by advising Lupus to wipe his nose more often so people "will not give him crud all the time." The sight of a crestfallen Lupus leads Tanner to take a more friendly approach to the bullied boy.
Rounding out the team, Buttermaker recruits the "best athlete in the area", who also happens to be a cigarette-smoking, loan-sharking, Harley-Davidson-riding troublemaker, Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley). No one else on the team is pleased at first with the new additions, but with Amanda and Leak on board, the Bears gain confidence and begin winning.
However, some issues begin to appear. Wanting to get to the championship game, Buttermaker tells Kelly to hog the fly balls to make the outs. When the other outfielders get resentful, Kelly stops, incurring Buttermaker's ire. Kelly then takes two easy strikes, again incurring Buttermaker's wrath, but then he contemptuously goes back to bat and hits a home run in spite of his coach to win the game and send the Bears to the championship. After the game, Amanda begins suggesting that she, Buttermaker, and her mom spend time together; but Buttermaker shrugs off the idea. When Amanda persists, he grows angry and rejects Amanda who walks away from the dugout as if nothing is wrong but then begins weeping. Buttermaker also weeps after Amanda leaves.
Prior to the league's championship game against the Yankees, the team experiences a meltdown as a fight erupts over Kelly's ball hogging. Buttermaker reveals he ordered Kelly to handle the fly balls. The rest of the boys look betrayed. As the game progresses, Buttermaker and Turner engage in shouting matches, directing their players to become increasingly more ruthless and competitive. Amanda is spiked in the chest. Buttermaker forces her to pitch with a sore arm. He also orders Rudy to lean into the strike zone to get hit by a pitch to draw a base.
A defining moment comes after a heated exchange between Turner's son (and Yankees pitcher) Joey (Brandon Cruz). Turner orders his son to walk Engelberg, the Bears' catcher. When Joey accidentally throws a pitch near Engelberg's head, a horrified Turner goes to the mound and slaps his son, knocking him to the mound. On the next pitch, Engelberg hits a routine ground ball back to Joey, who exacts revenge against his father by holding the ball until Engelberg circles the bases for an inside-the-park home run. Joey then drops the ball at his father's feet and leaves the game with his mother.
When Rudy fails to intentionally get hit by a pitch, and instead grounds out, Buttermaker grows enraged, yells at Rudy and then rest of the team for their shoddy play. The Bears appear demoralized. Buttermaker realizes he has become as competitive as Turner. He relents, and replaces Amanda and the other starters with all of the bench warmers, thus giving every kid a chance to play--including Lupus. Mr. Whitewood tries to argue with Buttermaker, telling him that victory is within his grasp, but Buttermaker threatens him and sends him back to the stands. The substitute Bears make errors and the team falls far behind on the scoreboard. However, when a long fly is hit in Lupus' direction, the oft-maligned and bullied kid makes the catch, ending the inning, and running in with his team celebrating with him.
In the bottom of the last inning, and needing four runs to tie, the Bears get two quick outs--one of which happened when Rudy tried to stretch a single into a double. Rudy apologizes, but Buttermaker compliments his aggressive play. Down to the last out, the spectators start leaving the stands. But, the Bears rally. Ogilvie walks. Ahmad bunts his way on base and Miguel, one of the Hispanic players, walks, to load the bases. It brings Kelly to bat as the tying run.
Turner decides to intentionally walk Kelly even though it will cost the Yankees a run. Buttermaker gives a sign to Kelly to swing away. Kelly lunges at a far-outside pitch and belts the ball to the wall. The three runners score ahead of Kelly, who races toward home plate with the game-tying run, only to be called out by the umpire on a very close play, causing the Bears to lose by one run.
Buttermaker celebrates his pride for the team by treating them to the beer in his cooler. Although they did not win the championship, they have the satisfaction of having come a long way. Amanda suggests Buttermaker teach her how to hit better the next year, and Buttermaker warmly responds, "You bet."
The Yankees condescendingly congratulate the Bears and apologize for how they treated them. Tanner, the shortstop, replies by telling them where they can shove their trophy and their apology. Lupus, apparently overcoming his shyness, throws the Bears' second-place trophy at the Yankees and yells "Wait till next year!", after which the Bears spray beers all over each other as if they had won the game.Walter Matthau as Morris Buttermaker, coach of the Bears: A drunken, loud, ex-professional baseball pitcher and part-time pool cleaner, who drives a blue Cadillac convertible
Vic Morrow as Roy Turner, coach of the Yankees who is competitive and aggressive
Joyce Van Patten as Cleveland Ohio, league manager who favors Turner and the Yankees
Ben Piazza as Bob Whitewood, city councilman and lawyer who sued the league to allow the Bears (in particular, his son) to play and who convinces (and pays) Buttermaker to coach the team
Tatum O'Neal as Amanda Whurlizer, 11-year-old pitcher who feels insecure about her tomboy image. She is proven to be a good pitcher. Her mother is Buttermaker's ex-girlfriend. Wears number 11.
Chris Barnes as Tanner Boyle, short-tempered shortstop with a Napoleon complex; after suffering a horrible loss on their first game, he picks a fight with the entire seventh grade from his school (and loses). He tends to curse more than the others, and often insults and bullies Timmy. Wears number 12.
Erin Blunt as Ahmad Abdul-Rahim, A Black American Muslim who plays in the outfield and adores Hank Aaron; strips off his uniform in shame after committing errors, but is convinced to return to the team by Buttermaker. Wears number 44 in honor of Hank Aaron, his hero.
Gary Lee Cavagnaro as Mike Engelberg, an overweight boy who plays catcher; a great hitter, he frequently teases Tanner about his size, his jabs at Yankee pitcher Joey Turner ignite a rivalry. Wears number 5.
Brandon Cruz as Joey Turner, the star pitcher for the Yankees (wears number 2 for that team). Coach Roy Turner's son. He has a rivalry with Engleberg and regularly bullies Tanner and Timmy. Allows Engleberg an inside-the-park home run, then quits the team after Roy slaps him in anger for almost beaning the Bears' catcher.
Jaime Escobedo as Jose Aguilar, Miguel's older brother who plays second base; doesn't speak English. Wears number 6.
Scott Firestone as Regi Tower, fairly quiet, red-headed third baseman whose dad vocally attends practices and games. Also plays first base. Wears number 1.
George Gonzales as Miguel Aguilar, Jose's younger brother; mostly plays right field. He doesn't speak English either; so short that the strike zone is non-existent. Wears number 7.
Jackie Earle Haley as Kelly Leak, local troublemaker who smokes and who rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Also the best athlete in the neighborhood. He alternates between left and center field and has a crush on Amanda. Wears number 3.
Alfred W. Lutter as Alfred Ogilvie, a bookworm who memorizes baseball statistics. He's mostly a benchwarmer who assists the coach with defensive strategy. A backup outfielder/first baseman, but reluctant to play as he feels he's one of the worst players on the team. Wears number 9.
Brett Marx as Jimmy Feldman, Fairly quiet third baseman with curly blond hair. Wears number 8.
David Pollock as Rudi Stein, nervous relief pitcher with glasses who is a terrible hitter; asked by Coach Buttermaker to purposely get hit by pitches in order to get on base. Also a backup outfielder. Wears number 10.
Quinn Smith as Timmy Lupus, a "booger-eating spaz;" plays right field and is considered to be the worst player on the team, but surprises everyone in the final game by making a key play to keep the Bears in the game. He is the most quiet and shy player, but showed the odd ability to properly prepare a martini for Coach Buttermaker while the team was assisting the coach with pool cleaning. Wears number 4.
David Stambaugh as Toby Whitewood, an unassuming boy who plays first base. He knows about the other players' personalities and at times speaks for the team. Son of councilman Bob Whitewood, who secretly paid Buttermaker to coach the team. Wears number 2.
Tatum O'Neal was paid $350,000 plus a percentage of the profits. These were later estimated to be $1.9 million.
The Bad News Bears was filmed in and around Los Angeles, primarily in the San Fernando Valley. The field where they played is in Mason Park on Mason Avenue in Chatsworth. In the film, the Bears were sponsored by an actual company, Chico's Bail Bonds. One scene was filmed in the council chamber at Los Angeles City Hall.
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 96% based on reviews from 26 critics and an average rating of 7.7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Bad News Bears is rude, profane, and cynical, but shot through with honest, unforced humor, and held together by a deft, understated performance from Walter Matthau."
In his 1976 review, critic Roger Ebert called the film "an unblinking, scathing look at competition in American society".
Walter Matthau was nominated for a BAFTA award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy. The screenplay by Bill Lancaster, son of actor Burt Lancaster, was winner of a Writers Guild of America award.
Saturday Night Live did a parody of the film with Matthau as the guest host called The Bad News Bees with John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and the rest in their recurring bee costumes. This subtly dealt with masturbation which was referred to as "buzzing-off".
American Film InstituteAFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs—nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10—nominated sports film
AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers—nominated