HOUSTON -- Let them play!
Longtime Astros fans will instantly recognize those three words and associate them with the late slugger Bob Watson, who famously bellowed “Let them play!” in his brief role in the movie “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” in 1977. Watson was one of several Astros players to get some face time on the silver screen when Hollywood came to the Astrodome.
The comedy was the sequel to the hit film “The Bad News Bears” and didn’t do quite as well critically. The plot has the ragamuffin Bears facing a team called the Houston Toros in the Astrodome between games of an Astros doubleheader for a chance to play a team from Japan.
In the movie, during the second inning of what was supposed to be a four-inning game, officials call it off because it ran over its allotted time. Bears coach, played by actor William Devane, protests as a few Astros players in rainbow uniforms appear in the dugout. Finally, Watson speaks up with his famous line: “Hey, c’mon, let the kids play!” Soon, both teams and the fans are chanting “Let them play!” as the words are flashed on the Astrodome’s famous scoreboard.
The chant was used in real life 25 years later in Milwaukee when it was announced the 2002 All-Star Game would end in a tie at the end of the inning if neither team scored, which is what happened.
“The plot was: They’re playing this game between games of a doubleheader,” Watson said in 2015. “The game was going to run a little long, and they wanted to stop the game and they wanted the Astros players to come out and say, ‘Hey, let the kids finishing playing their games.’ I guess the Bad News Bears were traveling across the country. I don’t even know why they were in Houston. They were playing this game, and so I don’t even know how I got the lead to come out and say, ‘C’mon, let the kids play!’”
A few of Watson’s teammates could be seen in the scene as well, including Cesar Cedeno, Enos Cabell, J.R. Richard, Ken Forsch, and manager Bill Virdon. The scene was shot during an Astros day off, Cabell said, and they had to be at the ballpark at 6 a.m. The Astros had played a night game the day before, so it was an early wake-up call.
Cabell joked that he was hitting .330 before the scene was shot and watched his average drop to .300 in a week or 10 days. “So I wasn’t happy,” he joked.
Nevertheless, Cabell came away with a new appreciation for acting.
“It was pretty interesting to do it and see what the actors and stuff go through,” Cabell said. “You have a newfound realization of what they do. They shot different shots from four, five, six directions and they add it all up and they make a movie out of that. It was pretty trying.”
Watson said it took about 25 takes to complete the scene, which lasted about five minutes in the movie. Astros players were on screen for only a few seconds. Watson said he received modest royalty checks of never more than $5 or $10 for years after the movie disappeared.
“And I’m going, ‘Gee whiz, there’s no way I want to be in movies and be a movie star if you have to keep doing this over and over and over,’” Watson said. “We had to get the lights just right. All the people that were sitting in the stands, they had to be just right. It was terrible, but we enjoyed doing the actual scene.”
Watson hit 184 homers in his 19-year big league career, 14 years of which were spent in Houston. He made history when he scored baseball’s one-millionth run, but his famous line in support of the Bad News Bears garnered him some publicity, as well.
“A lot of people have seen that picture over the years, and every once in a while, a trivia question asks about the ‘Bad News Bears,’” he said.