Bill BonhamNovember 17, 2009
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.
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.)