Every summer First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) conducts at least one Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families (BNC) Train-the-Trainer Workshop. The culturally-based financial education curriculum is enormously popular throughout Indian Country, drawing a wide array of trainers from tribal housing entities, community-based nonprofits, federal partners and other groups dedicated to financial literacy. With the hundreds of people who have completed BNC during its nearly 20-year history, you never know who you might encounter at a BNC workshop. Here’s a story by Shawn Spruce of a recent BNC participant who holds a connection to the classic Bad News Bears movies from the seventies.
Like legions of kids who grew up with disco, ringer tees, and flashy Aaron Spelling dramas, I adored The Bad News Bears. A memorable sports comedy showcasing the rebellious antics of a Southern California little league baseball team. With potty mouths to sting a roughneck’s ears, the unlikely band of pre-pubescent anti-heroes satisfied the raucous cravings of a generation starving for a bite of crudeness missing from Ajax clean The Brady Bunch reruns and mushy after-school specials.
The original film, released in the summer of 1976, is a classic underdog story: a ragtag team of misfits led by an alcohol-fueled curmudgeon of a coach, played by the late Academy Award winner Walter Matthau. Parading to the opening bars of Bizet’s opera Carmen, the Bears make it all the way to the league championship and stole their way into the hearts of every Gen Xer who ever stepped inside a batter’s box. The movie spawned two sequels, a TV series, and a 2005 remake featuring Billy Bob Thornton. Along the way characters like Engelberg, Tanner, and Kelly Leak became household names and the chant “Let them play!” an anthem to recalcitrant sports fans everywhere.
So what does any of this have to do with Indian Country?
In the first sequel The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, abandoned by their manager and unchaperoned, the Bears travel in a stolen van for a showdown against the Texas little league champs in the Houston Astrodome. En route the team makes a pit stop near the New Mexico-Texas state line, where a parking-lot run-in with a rough crew of Native kids leads to an anything-goes sandlot challenge. What ensues is a bona fide rez ball smack down nearly two decades before the Schimmel sisters were born.
While the film might not stand up to present-day standards of political correctness, it routinely airs on cable where I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years. Curious about the origins of the young extras who racked up 15 runs on the Bears before blasting a mercy-rule homerun into a graveyard. Who said Indians always lose in the movies?
At a First Nations-sponsored Building Native Communities train-the-trainer workshop in Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico, last summer, my questions were finally answered by a retired Mescalero Apache police officer named George Torres. During a morning icebreaker Torres casually revealed that he had played one of the uncredited extras in question. Dismissive, he said it wasn’t any big deal. Everyone in the room begged to differ and, after some cajoling, Torres opened up. This is his story.
First off, the rez wasn’t the rez. The scene was actually filmed in El Paso, Texas, during the summer of 1976, about the same time the first Bad News Bears movie was taking the country by storm. Back then the closest federally recognized Native American community was two hours away on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in south-central New Mexico. Producers from Paramount Pictures reached out to the Mescalero schools that connected them to a tribal little league team on which Torres, who was 15 at the time, played with most of the other extras in the film.
“They didn’t tell us a whole lot about what we were going to film” he explained. “I hadn’t even seen the first Bad News Bears movie so it was all new to me. But we were excited to take a road trip.”
Real life mimicked the movie when, like the Bears’ stealthy sojourn, the Mescalero kids traveled under the radar. Torres’s stepmother, Glenda Brusuelas, elaborated.
“We were told about the movie but didn’t believe it until the boys actually left,” Brusuelas recalled when I reached her by phone. “They didn’t give us much information about where they were going, so I got worried and tried to track them down.”
Frantic, Brusuelas finally located the hotel where her stepson was staying and called to check on him. A desk clerk told her the teen was resting and offered to take a message.
“They were really acting like he was some kind of celebrity,” she giggled. “When he finally got home he didn’t say much about the trip other than to say he missed my cooking.”
I quit beating around the bush. “So how was the money, George?”
“I don’t remember how much we were paid, but I’m sure I bought a house or a Cadillac or something,” Torres joked.
According to a 1978 People Magazine interview with Liz Keigley, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training location casting director, the going rate for movie extras in the late seventies was $60 a day. I’m thinking Torres’s Hollywood payday pocketed him about enough to buy a new bicycle and some chrome polish to shine the handlebars – genuine Cadillac-dealer chrome polish maybe?
I was also hoping for some juicy tattle. Did he play cards all night, talking trash with Chris Barnes aka hot-tempered Tanner Boyle? Was Jackie Earle Haley, who went on to such notable roles as masked vigilante Rorschach in Watchmen, as supremely cool in real life as his character Kelly Leak?
“You know we didn’t really mingle with the Bears on or off the set. We pretty much kept to ourselves. What I remember most was staying in a nice hotel and eating really well. That’s what I enjoyed the most.”
Come on, George. Work with me here. I’m trying to write a story.
Jeff Starr, who played the Bears’ corpulent catcher Mike Engelberg, confirmed there wasn’t much off-camera interaction between the two groups.
“I can’t remember the (Mescalero) kids too much” he said in a phone interview from the car dealership he manages in his hometown of Anna, Illinois. The former child actor spoke with a hearty, shallow Southern drawl. “I talked to some of the guys briefly but that’s about it. What I remember most about that scene was the old lot we filmed in and all the rocks. I was glad we didn’t have to film there long.”
Starr was excited I had met Torres and sent his regards and a compliment to his on-screen adversaries.
“In the movie they sure made it look they stomped us – and they probably would have in real life, too,” he chuckled.
Torres commented that people in those days didn’t carry smartphones and taking pictures was a mild luxury. Therefore, he doesn’t have photos or mementos from the trip. He remembers going to see the movie in the neighboring town of Alamogordo after it came out, but doesn’t recall much of a fuss about it in the Mescalero Apache community. However, Torres did go on to a stellar 12-year Major League career as a shortstop with the World Series Champion New York Yankees. Ah well, not exactly.
While pro baseball wasn’t in Torres’s future he did enjoy distinguished careers in the military and law enforcement, beginning in high school when he worked as a dispatcher and part-time jailer. After graduating in 1981 he enlisted in the Army. Stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he served four years in the elite 82nd Airborne Division. A Jumpmaster, Torres was an expert paratrooper who trained other paratroopers and managed airborne jump operations across all branches of services, an accomplishment he is especially proud of. After the Army he fought forest fires with the Mescalero Hot Shots before spending four years as a corrections officer at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Cruces. In 1992 he signed on with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, first as a police officer on the Mescalero Reservation and later in Artesia, New Mexico, as an instructor and member of an Interior Special Response Team.
“We traveled out to different reservations and assisted with uprisings and natural disasters – hurricanes in Florida. Things of that nature,” Torres explained.
Torres closed out his federal law enforcement career with the Department of Homeland Security. His main duties were as a specialist and trainer. Although he was assigned to Washington, D.C. after 9/11 — time that included a three-month stint as an Air Marshall guarding flights out of Dulles Airport. In 2013 he retired, or pulled the ripcord as he put it, to spend more time with family and enjoy hobbies like hunting, fishing, biking and running. He has a teenage son, two grandchildren, and a grown daughter who enjoys saying “You were a movie star, Dad!”
This past June, at the age of 55, Torres returned to the workplace and joined the Mescalero Apache Housing Department. A tenant service representative, he primarily assists with compliance and record-keeping.
Torres said he keeps in touch with some of the other kids from the movie, now grown of course, although sadly at least one has passed on. He was a bit reluctant when I requested this interview. You don’t say! But I persisted and hopefully didn’t upset him too much. He repeatedly said his on-screen appearance in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training was not a big deal, but I’d like George Torres and his co-extras to know that for many Native Americans it was and still is a big deal.
Although brief, your roles made a lasting impact in a charming movie that still entertains 40 years after its release. That says something when today, fast-paced digitized special effects and wizardry render most summer blockbusters out of date in the time it takes to chug down a few collectible plastic drink cups. And more importantly, you gave movie audiences a contemporary peek at Indian Country long before it was trendy. In those days, and even now, rarely did Native Americans casually appear in a mainstream film, much less serve up an old school butt kicking to its stars.
We all have brothers, cousins, nephews, sons and grandsons who once looked and acted just like you. The seventies, while not perfect, were fun years to grow up and remain a wistful source of nostalgia for millions of aging latchkey kids. America maintained its semblance of innocence, and baseball was still our national pasttime. You made us smile, you made as laugh, and you made us proud. But most importantly, you made us realize, win or lose and just like George Torres, we could all be home-run hitters in life.
By Shawn Spruce, First Nations Financial Education Consultant