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Bill Bonham

November 17, 2009

Bill Bonham 78

There are rules.

A few months ago, my mother-in-law came for a visit and was leafing through some of my cards. She grew up in Cincinnati, a huge Reds fan, and so was particularly drawn to any cards that featured players from her team. When she came upon this Bill Bonham card she immediately declared that the card was wrong.

“He can’t have been on the Reds,” she said. “Look at his hair.”

She was right, of course. The Reds had a strict grooming policy that set them apart from everyone in the league at that time. As afros and mustaches bloomed elsewhere, the Reds demanded all of their players to be clean-shaven and shorn. It’s likely that this doctored Bill Bonham card is the only instance from that hairiest of decades in which someone with long hair wore or seemed to wear a Reds uniform.

***

I follow rules. I am obedient, meek. When the recording comes over the speaker on the city bus asking standing customers to move toward the back, and I’m one of the standing customers, I move toward the back. I want to be a good citizen, and I don’t want any trouble. I drive the speed limit, give or take a few miles an hour. Actually, I prefer not to drive at all. I prefer not to leave my apartment. I’m afraid I’ll go out there in the uncertain world and inadvertently break a rule. I go to work on time and pick up DVDs at the rental place on my way home, the better to hole up inside the apartment with. This weekend I watched the entire first season of Weeds, the show about a suburban housewife turned rule-breaking pot dealer. Whenever big bags of marijuana appeared on screen, I got a nostalgic twinge both for the feeling of being high and for breaking rules. I basically gave up smoking pot years ago, save for the occasional trip to Amsterdam, where it is not against the rules. It doesn’t agree with me like it once did, for one thing, but I’m sure I’d still do it once in a while if it was sold legally at, say, the place on the corner where I buy beer. It’s a rules thing. And since there are legal ways to alter or at least numb my consciousness, I don’t bother any more with the illegal way. I’ve got my beer, my mounds of starchy food, my food-coma naps, my fantasy sports teams, my DVDs. It’s enough to cross the expanse of a day.

I enjoyed Weeds, but the DVD that affected me the most in recent weeks was Little Children, the 2006 film that garnered Jackie Earle Haley an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. The movie opens with an image of Haley in wanted-poster form, his mug shots in profile and straight on shown in a poster asking “Are your children safe?” For me, a baseball and pop-culture loving child of the 1970s, the photos of Haley were jarring. He had been, when I was a kid, the creator of the single coolest figure in a decade in which cool became a mass-market commodity. He was cooler than Han Solo, cooler than Evel Knieval, cooler than Ace Frehley, cooler than the Fonz. His cool was closer than all those other more exotic avatars of cool. He was cool like the tougher, older kids in my town. He was Kelly Leak, outlaw and star of the Bad News Bears.

In The Bad News Bears and, even more pointedly, in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Jackie Earle Haley’s Kelly Leak displayed a charismatic disregard for rules. He was the kid who would never be tamed into someone capable of following the rigid rules of the adult world. Then, not long after his days as Kelly Leak were over, Jackie Earle Haley disappeared from the public eye. To see him reappear decades later in mug shots, sullen, his rebelliously long hair not only shorn but receding, balding, was not only a shocking reminder of the relentless passage of time but also a symbolic slaying of the previously immortal freedom of Kelly Leak.

Haley’s character in Little Children, Ronnie McGorvey, turns out to be the twisted inverse of Kelly Leak. Instead of the tough, brave boy with the magnetically precocious worldliness of an adult, McGorvey is a craven, repugnant middle-aged man with the brittle purchase on life of a wounded, fearful boy. And where the previously solitary Kelly Leak became heroic by, in the end, choosing to look out for his younger, frailer teammates, McGorvey has forever banished himself from humanity by molesting a child. Haley’s miraculous performance hinges on somehow engendering sympathy for a character who can accurately be called a monster. He struggles to, as his mother writes to him just before she dies, “be a good boy.”

***

It’s fun to imagine that the Reds uniform in Bill Bonham’s 1978 card is real, that the moment is real, that Bill Bonham sauntered knowingly onto the sparkling spring training compound of the conservative National League powerhouse, ready to sneer at the first team functionary who hustled over to him to inform him in a tense whisper that he was breaking the rules.

But one look at Bill Bonham and you can see that he’s no rebel. That was the thing about the 1970s—by then everyone was experimenting with “counterculture” stylings. It’s safe to assume, looking at his bland, good-natured expression, that Bill Bonham complied to the rules.

Who doesn’t?

***

Once, in the summer of 1977, the last summer in which Bill Bonham wore his hair long, I stayed overnight at my friend Mike’s house. He lived in Randolph, which is over the mountain from East Randolph, where I lived. Randolph had a much higher population than East Randolph, maybe four thousand compared to the few hundred people scattered up and down the road I lived on. In the afternoon, Mike took me to a lot near his house and we played a pickup game of baseball with a couple dozen other kids, everyone getting a chance to smack the tennis ball we were using far into the outfield until it started to get too dark to see. There were no adults around. No umpires. No rules.

After that, our bodies buzzing from hours of baseball, we walked to the Playhouse movie theater and saw The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. I distinctly remember a lack of a parental presence. There was an excitement in the theater, the whole place full of boys chattering and laughing up until the lights went dim, when the excitement shifted to a deeper, more hushed register.

A few minutes into the Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, my inherent enjoyment and embracing of the movie went to another, deeper level. I hadn’t seen the original film, with Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal, and I wasn’t familiar with any of the characters in the movie, but for some reason this made it even easier to embrace in its first moments. As the team came together for a practice, there was a familiarity that implicitly included anyone watching the movie. We are all part of this team. We all know each other. I would have enjoyed the movie no matter where it went, as long as it included boys like me playing baseball.

But the movie became more than just an enjoyable night in a temporarily parentless world the moment that Kelly Leak appeared.

His appearance came just after the blustering militaristic new coach of the Bears had climaxed his rant about following rules by throwing the team’s beloved catcher, Engelberg, off the team. So an implicit question precedes Kelly’s arrival: Are the Bears going to be reduced to a roster of bland rule-followers?

Kelly Leak refuses this possibility by using his motorcycle and dark sunglasses and flat, emotionless exression and cool to wordlessly menace and taunt the hoarse-voiced coach until the latter storms off, leaving the team to a fate that he no doubt imagines as dire, the unthinkable chaos beyond rules. The Bears, on the other hand, celebrate. So did I. So did all the boys sitting in the dark all around me.

Now we’re all in our forties, the former boys in that movie theater on that summer night in 1977. Now we follow the rules. At night many of us wonder if our children are safe. In the morning we look at a stunned wan face in the mirror.

But back then, in the summer of 1977, we cheered. Kelly Leak had ridden to the rescue. There are no rules!

***

(Love versus Hate update: Bill Bonham’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)

22 comments

  1. Right. There. With. You.

    Jackie Earle was also outstanding as the undersized, punchy Moocher in Breaking Away.


  2. I agree with the high marks for Haley as Moocher. Among other things, his performance gave the world one of the all-time great quitting scenes. (“Punch the clock, Shorty.”) His work in that film especially (since it’s a “grown-up” film) makes it hard to understand why he slipped off the map for so long. I guess the slick 1980s might not have had a place for the likes of a soulful pock-faced hero.

    Perhaps the film “Losin’ It” holds some answers. Haley co-stars alongside a then-unknown but soon to be icon-of-the-’80s, Tom Cruise.


  3. Wow. Those were two iconic roles.
    I think I first shockedly re-encountered the exhumed Haley/Leak in that awful Will Ferrell movie where he owns/plays for a fictional ABA basketball team –
    (can’t even remember the thing’s name, although I do have an unused plastic souvenir cup with a “Flint Tropics” logo on it in my kitchen, retained as booty from the highly anticiated/sparsely-attended screening I went to.) I think every town, every league, every camp had its own Kelly Leak prototype. Indeed, where are they now?

    I’m curious about The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, the second sequel that no one seems to have seen. Was Kelly Leak still on the team for that odyssey?


  4. I have partially viewed the heinous “Go to Japan” three-quel. Among many other offensive elements, it had:

    1. no baseball
    2. no Ogilvie
    3. no Tanner
    4. way too much of a mincing, mailin’-it-in performance by Tony Curtis

    Leak/Haley was on hand, mostly in some sort of a long, labored subplot involving a tepid, moon-eyed romance with a giggly Japanese girl. (I confuse the particulars of the subplot with a similar trope in the Karate Kid effort that was set in Japan. It woulda been better for both movies if Leak would have run into the Karate Kid over there and kicked his ass.)


  5. being short of stature myself, i always identified with moocher. little children really did resurrect his career — he was rorschach in watchmen and, believe it or not, will be playing freddie krueger in a remake of a nightmare on elm st.

    in fact, haley didn’t make a movie or tv show from 1993 to 2006, before coming back for little children. his official biography skips over what he might have been doing during that time.

    anyone know what the longest absence in baseball is between major league appearances, aside from roy hobbs, especially returning and making the all-star team?

    ps: you can follow haley on twitter, to see such gems as “u find myself tweeting when I should be working. stop that! j” “:-)” and “finally have access to the internet again. but can’t figure out how to upload a pic from my phone in canada. dang. j”


  6. Though Little Children garnered him the acclaim to reignite his acting career, I believe his comeback may have actually started when Sean Penn recommended him as being perfect for a small part in another 2006 flick, All the King’s Men. (I haven’t seen it.) Thank you, Sean Penn!

    Haley also has a part in an upcoming Scorcese film, as a mental patient. (Clearly his terrifying, heartfelt work as Ronnie McGorvey is driving the bus on his job offers.)

    There have been a couple stunt-driven long-absence returns to the majors (Satchel Paige, Minnie Minoso, both appearing briefly in their fifties after 12-year absences), but my guess for player with the longest spell between legitimate tours in the majors would be Vicente Romo (see link in sidebar under San Diego Padres). He was never no all-star though.


  7. Oh yeah, and Haley, when the acting work dried up, became a director/producer of industrial/corporate videos in Texas. Something like that.


  8. great post Josh.

    Kelly Leak, was one of those iconic fictional characters from 1970’s, along with (Arthur Fonzerilli, Vinnie Barbarino, and Rocky Balboa) that were of utmost importance to adolescent males growing up in the 1970’s. But by 1980 all of those characters lost most of their “cool” from lackluster and lame sequels or lame character developments like “shark jumping” (Fonzie), or just a basic awareness from maturity that Vinnie Barbarino was a moron and pretty lame icon to begin with.

    I remember seeing Haley in “Breaking Away” being disappointed and thinking, “what happened to Kelly Leak? how does the “toughest kid” become a 5’4″ “moocher”. Suddenly Kelly Leak wasn’t that threatening anymore.

    I remember “Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” was kind of an ultimate adolescent male fantasy at the time, whereby boys would be left without parental supervision to steal a van, eat fast food, stay in motels, watch t.v. and drive across country to play a baseball game at the Astrdome. What could be better?

    By the time the Japan sequel came about it’s kind of like, “what’s the point, how can these kids still be on the same team in little league” and what the hell is Tony Curtis doing there anyway.

    Seaver41,

    The biggest non War related gap in A.S. game appearance I could think of was 10 years by Tommy John who played in the 1968 all star game, missed all of 1975 and didn’t appear in another all star game until he played in the 1978 game.

    Kevin Elster also had a big gap in his career where he missed basically 4 years and only had 50 P.A’s from 1992-1995 and then hit 24 home runs in 1996.

    Going back to Bill Bonham, he kind of reminds of the SGT. from “Chips”.
    Anyway by the time Bonham had long hair it wasn’t even rebellious anymore. Nixon and Ford had side burns and fairly long hair. Actually having short hair or crew cuts like the Clash, was seen as more cool or rebellious.

    Bill Bonham kind of looks like a scarcrow or a hobo in this photo.


  9. On another Bad News Bears related note, in a previous life I worked as an advertising copywriter. On location for commercial shoots, it’s typical that writers and client reps and other non-essential folks are supposed to remain sequestered out of the film crew’s way in an air-conditioned van and watch the progress on a TV monitor. The last shoot I was on, I and the other van passengers were discussing how the lead actors had attained some moderate success as film and TV actors, when the driver of the van announced, somewhat surreptitiously, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted us to hear, that he had been in a few movies once. He then, very casually, revealed that he had played Miguel Agilar in all three Bad News Bears films. Needless to say, I spent less time than my clients probably were comfortable with watching the monitors and instead grilling George Gonzales about his remarkable life. What I recall: he and many of the other actors essentially grew up on the Paramount lot, and their existence off-set pretty closely resembled the world of relaxed adult supervision as the one the fictional Bears themselves occupied; Walter Matthau was a genuine and loving father figure towards them all, and though he was too ill to attend George’s wedding, he sent a very thoughtful–and pricey–gift which was not revealed to me; the kids thought Jackie Earle Haley was as cool as Kelly Leak; much of the cast members stay in semi-frequent touch, and many happily attend Bad News Bears conventions; and Chris Barnes, the actor who played Tanner Boyle, has largely disappeared, and has somehow made it clear that he is not interested in being found, by fans or former teammates.


  10. Good story McSweeey.

    I think one of the funnier moments in “Breaking Training” is when the parents ask the kids how much money the need for the trip and most of them respond about $20 dollars. The camera cuts to Englebert and he says he needs $80 dollars and his parents wonder if that’s enough money. Then the camera goes to Miguel and his brother and the say $4 dollars would be enough.

    Also, I think that was the first movie to have kids openly swear and curse on film.


  11. Surely Jim Bouton deserves mention for his impressively cleft career? And at least he was an All-Star in 1963. Anyone know where I can buy that awesome van from Breaking Training?


  12. The first Bad News Bears movies was one of the great baseball movies of all time. The lawyer in me will note that the team was created early in the movie as the result of a class action lawsuit.

    Josh – Weeds is a great show. The first season is the tip of the iceberg.


  13. I am reluctant to comment, as I have a knack of killing threads and this is one I really want to keep alive.

    Kelly Leak is arguably the very best of all on-screen baseball players. We do not have complete statistics available, but imagine what his OPS+ works out to for that first season of work alone. It is positively Bonds-ian, or Ruth-ian if you prefer. To be sure, Kelly was more peak value than career value, but what a peak.

    There is something haunting about the original BAD NEWS BEARS movie. It splatters across the screen like so much Bicentennial discharge, children wishing only to play a children’s game yet stymied by adult discontent. What could be more American? It’s not quite Scout and Jem Finch, but there is an authenticity in the young Bears’ performances that would not outlast the decade. What happened to Eddie from COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER? He turned into a jock asshole, maybe not entirely unredeemable but his coach’s son right up until he was not. There’s enough melodrama to disqualify BNB from the ranks of pure 1970s American cinematic postmodernism, but it holds up well as a period piece and a time capsule. Almost 30 years later, we open it up and out comes Ronnie McGorvey; as Josh notes, we have come full circle. Once tougher than Toughskins, we original Bears fans are now the adults. Does that make us the jackasses also? We’d have to ask our kids. For me, I know the answer.


  14. “The Bad News Bears” was directed by the late Michael Ritchie, whose debut film, “Downhill Racer,” just came out on DVD today. Ritchie isn’t talked about too much these days, but he was the premiere American movie satirist of the 70s. His films (including the excellent “The Candidate,” “Smile” and “Semi-Tough”) all seem to ask the questions: “What is success?” “Why do we compete?” “Why are we driven to win?” “What does victory really mean?”

    It’s not surprising he turned to sports so often. Could Kelly Leak have become Downhill Racer’s Dave Chappellet if he hadn’t have found Morris Buttermaker?


  15. Just got the below info about the photo in the ’78 Bonham card and some thoughts on Bonham’s ’70s-icon namesake in an email from a reader:

    “The Bill Bonham picture was taken in Scottsdale, AZ, spring training home of the Chicago Cubs in 1977. The palm trees and green wooden outfield wall gave it away. I spent many spring days at Scottsdale Stadium and still do, except now the Giants play there and the walls are no longer wooden and green. I thought Bill Bonham was pretty cool when I was a kid because he shared a surname with a Led Zeppelin band member; I thought there wasn’t much cooler than Led Zep in 1977.”


  16. Great post, Lonniesmith4president and blankemon.

    Blankemon, your 100% about Michael Ritchie excellent satirist and one of the best directors in the last 40 odd years to really shine a light on all the B.S. and hypocrisy in American Life.

    I’ve always thought “Smile” was one of the most over-looked and under-rated movies of the 70’s.

    I don’t think any director de-constructed suburbia quite like Ritchie did.

    One of the great things about “The Bad New Bears” is it doesn’t talk down to kids and treats them as honestly & fairly as any film I’ve ever seen. And by the end of the film, we see that the kids are much more decent human beings than the adults.

    And in retrospect I think Little League baseball has done far more damage to baseball in this country than good. When you really try to be objective it’s kind of messed up what we do to little kids in Little League. I think that’s part of the reason kids don’t play baseball anymore, they like basketball and football much better.


  17. Thanks, johnq11. I totally agree about BNB and how it refuses to talk down to kids, and that “Smile” is totally underrated. “The Candidate” has one of the greatest closing lines in movie history, too.

    As for Little League, remember the words of Hall Of Famer Bob Lemon: “Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.”


  18. Blankemon,

    “The Candidate” is another underrated overlooked movie which is kind of surprising condidering Robert Redford is in the movie. I think he says, “Now What” at the end of the film.

    The way most kids are represented in Hollywood movies is either sugar sweet kids that always do the right things or “hip/cool” kids who wear cool clothes and say funny one liners always on cue.

    I coached little leauge baseball for two years when I was in my 20’s during the 1980’s. It was quite an eye-opening experience. We had at least 4 or 5 “Turners” in that league and I was kind of shocked at the way these 35-40 year old guys would try to intimidate the 20 year old coaches, it was really kind of sad. Seriously it was like WTF?? Does winning a stupid little game mean that much to you?? By the end I was really turned off by the whole experience.

    People pay lip-service to things like sportsmanship and teamwork but you learn pretty fast that the only thing that matters or of value is winning.

    Like you said, what Ritchie was trying to do in all of his films is try to define “How Americans define success?”, and “What does winning Mean?, and “Why do we compete?” and “What do we value?”

    Unfortunately, it seems like We have valued the Turners far too much in the last 30 odd years.


  19. Seaver 41,
    I recall Warren Cromartie returning to the major leagues after several years in Japan, but he did not make an all-star team upon his return.

    lonniesmith4president,
    Brandon Cruz (Eddie) became a punk rock singer, who briefly in 2003 was the vocalist for the reformed Dead Kennedys (minus original singer Jello Biafra).


  20. My favorite post yet. Great comments too.


  21. You can tell that is a Cubs hat he’s wearing, too. The C has point on the round side of the side that lets you know that it’s a Cubs lid. They just airbrushed the blue cap to red!


  22. I agree that “Smile” is a lost classic. And the original BNB really WAS groundbreaking at the time for it’s depiction of children, and (gasp) their language! Contrast that film with the relatively bloodless 2005 remake. Josh, I believe we saw it together in Manhattan…
    I can quite honestly say that I cannot remember a goddamn thing about it. Like so many remakes… completely unnecessary, and eminently forgettable.

    [“Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.” -Bob Lemon.]
    There was a brilliant satire in Mad magazine many many years ago about what happens when Little League gets completely taken over and commodified by adults. It still rings truer than life.

    And am I the only one out here who suspects that Elster may have been hittin’ the Lenny-Juice back in ’96?



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