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Review: The Battered Bastards of Baseball

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So, Kurt Russell's father used to run a baseball team. Who knew? Now, thanks to Netflix, we all do....

It used to be the case that even moderately-sized towns across America had their own local baseball team, unaffiliated with any major-league franchise, and owning their own players without any obligations. But as the minor-league system we know today gradually evolved, these teams gradually became feeder teams for the majors, rather than functioning entities in their own right. Oh, sure: they had leagues and post-seasons and even pennants: but if the parent club came calling, and wanted your star slugger, the night before the playoffs began, he was packing a suitcase. They were called "farm teams" for a reason: they were there to be harvested.

By the early seventies, there were no independent baseball teams left anywhere. None. So, Bing Russell was breaking entirely new ground when he decided to start up an unaffiliated Class A team in Portland, to replace the Pacific Coast League Beavers, who had upped sticks and moved to Spokane. Russell had been an unofficial mascot of the Yankees growing up, hanging out with the likes of Leftie Gomez and Lou Gehrig, but his own baseball career came to an end after he was struck in the head. He and his family moved to Hollywood, where he became an actor, best known as Deputy Clem in Bonanza.

But baseball remained his true love, and he saw opportunity in Portland. He paid the $500 fee for a franchise in the Northwest League, and held open tryouts, assembling has beens, never weres, cast offs and wannabes to compete against the "bonus babies" of the affiliated teams. It's the story of this struggle, and the five years of growing success that followed, which is covered in the documentary film The Battered Bastards of Baseball, now available on Netflix. While Russell died in 2003, there's archive footage of him, and interviews with many of those who took part, including son Kurt, and batboy Todd Field, now an Oscar-nominated writer and director.

As someone who loves baseball - and those who play the game for that love more than any rewards - this was a delight to watch. You couldn't make this stuff up: the Mavericks come over as a slightly more upscale version of the Trinidad Triggers from the Pecos League, with players who know this is their last chance - but if they're going down, they're going down swinging. And it's got the "plucky underdog" theme down to a T, with the affiliated clubs hating the Mavericks for showing them up, both in popularity and on-field success. Come season end, when the Mavericks reached the playoffs, it's claimed the other teams would send down better players to Class A, just to face them.

However, it's too squeaky-clean: hardly "battered," and certainly not as "bastards," The closest you get is when the film covers the return of Jim Bouton, whose attention was drawn to Portland after Joe Garagiola did a national TV feature on the Mavericks. Bouton's clubhouse expose, Ball Four, got him blacklisted by the official game - but not the Mavericks, for whom he went 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 1975. One interviewee states Bouton's tales of bus back-seat antics and amphetamine popping were almost mild in comparison to what the Mavericks got up to. And then... Nothing. it's back to heart-warming tales of Russell appointing the first female GM in the minor leagues. Boooo!

For instance, it talks about Manager Frank Peters, a local bar-owner, who later ran for Oregon governor, before spending time in jail. But the film inexplicably forgets to mention that the he got the job after the previous manager, Hank Robinson, was banned for punching an umpire. Or there's Mavericks' star Reggie Thomas, who was driven in a limo to the park, even though he lived a block away; he vanished off the map in later years, rumored to have become an FBI informant. Again, the doc omits an incident where Thomas, channeling the spirit of Werner Herzog, threatened to shoot Peters after discovering he wasn't in the line-up - and had a gun in the dugout to do it.

Despite this sense of that what isn't told might have been more fun than what is, the characters painted here are still so endearing it's easy to forgive this fault. Not the least of them is Bing Russell, who ran the team more like a family, keeping an excessively-large roster of 30, just because he thought guys deserved that last change. As Kurt Russell put it, he had three sisters, but hundreds of brothers [The future star of Tombstone, who played 23 games for the Mavericks in their debut season, was no scrub player himself, reaching the Double-A level before, like his father, an injury ended any hopes of further progression].

And the town responded, blowing away all previous Class-A attendance records - the Mavericks alone outdrew another entire league. But how could you not respond to a brand of baseball where, after a sweep, infielder Joseph Garza - known as "Jogarza" - would parade along the top of the dugout, waving a broom. On fire. However, major-league baseball was less impressed. Although the previous AAA team had left on a wave of apathy, Russell's success convinced them to sweep in and claim eminent domain with another Triple-A team. But they'd compensate him for his five years of effort: $26,000.

Needless to say, Russell wasn't standing for that, but I'll leave the final face-off for the film to reveal. I'll just note that Portland has struggled to retain minor-league baseball. The AAA team which replaced the Mavericks left for Salt Lake in 1993, and the latest incarnation fell apart after no agreement could be reached on a new stadium, passing through Tucson on their way to El Paso. The territory is currently back in Class A ball, where the Diamondbacks' affiliate, the Hillsboro Hops, are the nearest team to Portland. But I'm fairly sure they don't have a mascot dog which recovers stray balls from the field.

Rarely has a baseball team been more aptly named than the Mavericks (contrast: even with a humidor this year, nobody with 70 innings pitched for the Reno "Aces" has an ERA under 3.70), and the film is a delightful throwback to a now-extinct era when anyone, literally, could start a baseball team. While there is now a flourishing indie ball culture again - just ask David Peralta - I do tend to think the separation and exclusion of Russell and his ilk, has a deadening effect on the game overall. With the game seeming to be increasingly corporate, this film shows there is another way: it may not be more profitable, but it sure looks a lot more fun.