A work of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company in the mid-1970s, Bleacher Bums was the brain-child of actor Joe Mantegna (The Simpsons, Criminal Minds). A Chicagoan to his core, Mantegna recognized the cheap-seats of Chicago’s iconic Wrigley Field as a setting that could be rife with familiar personalities, all brought together by their love of a perennially underachieving team like the Chicago Cubs.
Long after its theater run, Showtime commissioned a TV movie adaptation in 2001, directed by Saul Rubinek (True Romance). Rubinek’s version of Bleacher Bums retains the titular setting, but due to licensing issues with the MLB, has no choice but to relocate its gaggle of denizens from Wrigley to “Fairway Park.” They’re not watching the Cubs face the St. Louis Cardinals; instead, they’re watching the Chicago Bruins take on the St. Louis Eagles. Disappointingly too, nobody calls anyone a “jagoff,” and a reference to a ballplayer named “Manny Losa” further handicaps the lived-in qualities the Organic Theater Company crew worked to maintain. However, there is a reference to a player named “Pulaski,” and that made me smile.
Still, Bleacher Bums is occasionally quite fun as it takes place at an afternoon game in which the Bruins enter on a seven-game skid. In the bleachers sits Zig (Wayne Knight of Seinfeld fame) and Decker (Peter Riegert), two longtime buds who have nothing better to do with their lives than attend day games and watch their inept team try and put together a competent nine-innings.
Surrounding Zig and Decker are a number of other “bums,” including Marvin (Brad Garrett), a shark who loves getting Zig to put his money where his big mouth is. Marvin turns Zig’s impulsive fanboy banter into an opportunity to take his money, and Zig can’t say no to any kind of bet. Soon after first pitch, Zig’s wife, Rose (Mary Walsh), shows up to the game in an attempt to stop Zig from blowing more of their savings, but instead finds herself placing wagers. While these bets are made and discussed, Decker’s son, Joey (Jeff Geddis), tries to use this otherwise laidback setting as an opportunity to get dad to buy into his dreams as a jazz musician. As a parent and a gambler, Decker isn’t particularly good in either role.
Then there’s Greg (Matt Craven), a blind man, who strikes up a friendship with Melody (Sarrin Boylan), who dons a bikini in hopes she’ll catch the attention of ogling men as well as the TV cameras. Finally, there’s Rupert (Stephen Markle), a die-hard Bruins loyalist who has memorized many a baseball card, seen all 162 Bruins games for years on end, and lives to heckle St. Louis outfielders to the point where he’s hauled away by security.
Like your average baseball game, Bleacher Bums is nonstop noise, be it from the crowd, or the crop of characters arguing bets and reciting stats. This can get dizzying, but the central core of Zig, Decker, Marvin, Rose, Greg, and Melody are developed enough that they grow into their own eclectic and likable types over the course of 110 minutes. However, attempts to illustrate their plights as individuals is somewhat squandered due to screenwriters Mitch Paradise and Dennis Paoli making the camaraderie less about the daily lives of these folks and instead about their stupid and impulsive wagers.
Rubinek and company add enough colorful dialog and interpersonal conversation to keep things engaging, for the most part. This doesn’t obscure the borderline atrocious baseball sequences, which are shot in chunks (the batter hitting the ball followed by the outfielder catching it, followed by a runner sprinting to another base), completely lacking fluidity. Like the play on which it is based, it would’ve been a more intriguing setup if Rubinek completely avoided what was transpiring on the field, and left the context only illustrated by the announcer or the bums themselves.
All of these shortcomings might explain why Bleacher Bums hasn’t etched itself into the pantheon of baseball movies. It’s also far too long; material like this is ripe for the 90-minutes-or-less treatment. That said, with its marginal effectiveness largely thanks to the talented crop of performers, who help make this a pleasant-enough hangout movie, America’s favorite pass-time has seen far more pathetic attempts to articulate the on-field magic. Mixed results aside, it’s refreshing to be reminded that sometimes the source of enjoyment when attending a baseball game, major league or minor, is in large part the crowd.
NOTE: As of this writing, Bleacher Bums is unable to stream or rent on any platform, but the DVD can be purchased on eBay for just a few dollars.
Starring: Wayne Knight, Brad Garrett, Matt Craven, Peter Riegert, Hal Sparks, Sarrin Boylan, Mary Walsh, Jeff Geddis, and Stephen Markle. Directed by: Saul Rubinek.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!