Before anyone thought of The Bad News Bears, Slapshot, and Major League, there were the Portland Mavericks. In 1973, after professional baseball had abandoned the Oregon city, Hollywood actor Bing Russell — Deputy Clem on Bonanza — jumped at a chance to organize the only independent minor-league team in the country. Facing skepticism from a city that had been hoping for an actual major-league team and starting from scratch without any players, Russell held open tryouts for any has-been or never-will-be. “He put this team together of misfits, a ballclub made up a bunch of crazy individuals,” says Bing’s son, Kurt Russell, who co-owned and played for the Mavericks. “There’s never been another ballclub like that. His favorite movie and the favorite part he ever played in the theater was The Music Man. And in real life, there was a lot of Music Man to Bing Russell.”
Baseball and Hollywood have always been dueling passions for the Russells — both father and son played minor-league ball — and both are at the heart of The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a documentary premiering at this week’s Sundance Film Festival. Bing’s grandsons, Chapman and Maclain Way, were inspired to co-direct the movie after uncovering old Mavericks memorabilia at their grandparents’ house, like the team photo that features players wearing backwards uniforms and guzzling beers (see below).
The brothers knew Bing had led an amazing life, beginning with being a kid bat-boy for the legendary Yankees teams of Joe DiMaggio and extending to his long acting career in Hollywood and television westerns. But the more they dug into the Mavericks history, the more they found a story full of fascinating characters. There was the team’s first manager Hank Robinson, an ex minor-leaguer turned actor who would be suspended for a year for punching an umpire. (That might only be funny to those who know that Robinson would later go on to play the angry umpire ejected from a baseball game by Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun.) There was Jim Bouton, who found himself blackballed by Major League Baseball after he wrote a hilarious tell-all memoir about playing for the Yankees. And there was the team’s bat-boy, Todd Field, the same Todd Field who grew up to direct Oscar-nominated movies like In the Bedroom and Little Children.
But what made the Mavericks story most compelling was that they immediately became a huge success. Not only did they win — beating other teams stocked with big-league prospects — but new fans flocked to the ballpark in record numbers. “What Bing saw was, ‘Well, if I don’t affiliate with a Major League team, then I can do whatever I want and I can hold on to my players all season and fans will actually get to know them,’” says Maclain. “So I think he actually turned his independent status into a huge advantage.”
“They shattered all the minor-league attendance records,” says Chapman. “Bing made it a priority to really entertain these fans and make it for the common person to come off of work and go to a cheap baseball game and get great entertainment.”
The independent enterprise would last five wild seasons, in which the Mavericks won their division four times. Organized baseball took notice of the Mavericks’ box-office success and quickly returned an affiliated franchise to douse the independent spirit from spreading, a drama the documentary details.
If the motley crew of ragtag players and the David-versus-Goliath plotline sound like the perfect sports movie, then you won’t be surprised to learn that Hollywood has expressed interest. “There have been a number of people who wanted to do something with the Mavericks story, and I won’t be surprised if it’s talked about in the future,” says Kurt. “But the idea here was simply two grandsons finding out about their grandfather. I’m really glad that they did it because I’m really anxious for my family to see this because they’ll have a much stronger picture of where I come from, of who I come from.”
The Battered Bastards of Baseball premieres at Sundance on Jan. 20. The Festival runs Jan. 16-26.