By Linc Leifeste | July 10, 2014
Directors: Chapman Way, Maclain Way
“The Mavs are bruising, belching proof that truth is stranger than fiction.” So stated, and quite accurately, the LA Times about the the independent minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. Their 1973-77 run in the single-A Northwest League should be the stuff of legends but sadly seems to be largely unknown and forgotten. Considering that the founder and owner of the franchise, Bing Russell, came to Portland directly from Hollywood following a 13-year stint on Bonanza (as well as having 162 other acting credits on IMDb), and is the father of film legend Kurt Russell, who also played for the Mavericks, it’s truly shocking that this story is not better known. And even more puzzling is the fact that this story is only being told now thanks to the dedicated efforts of Bing’s grandsons (Kurt’s nephews), director-brothers Chapman and Maclain Way.
And while there is no doubt this is a baseball story, this isn’t a story that can only be appreciated by fans of the grand old game. Like the best sports stories, Battered Bastards is also a redemption story, a tale of old passions rekindled, underdogs battling for respect and dreams both fulfilled and broken. Bing Russell fell in love with baseball as a young child and had the good fortune of being taken under the wing of New York Yankees legend Lefty Gomez. He grew up spending time with Yankee legends such as Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig and ultimately went on to play a little pro baseball himself before an injury ended his career, after which he packed up his family for Hollywood, determined to make it in the movie business. Which he did, while all along he kept his love for baseball burning by teaching the game to his kids and making obsessively detailed training videos. But after Bonanza was canceled in 1972, Kurt noticed that his father seemed to be coasting, no longer tapping into his passion for acting or baseball, and encouraged him to do something about it.
As fate would have it, the long-running Portland minor league team, the Beavers, also pulled up stakes in 1972, leaving the town without a baseball team. So Bing got the idea of starting a new team in Portland and was able to buy the rights to do so for a mere $500. But unlike every other team his Mavericks would eventually face in the Northwest League, his organization was independent, not affiliated with any Major League Baseball organization. There had been a long history of independent professional baseball teams in America but by 1972, they were non-existent. So the concept that this guy from Hollywood could waltz into Portland and start a baseball team on his own dime that would be able to compete with all these other teams who had MLB financial support and access to MLB-drafted talent was met with skepticism, if not outright scorn.
Advertising for open tryouts in the Sporting News, Russell had over five hundred eager applicants show up from far and wide, a motley crew of misfits whose MLB dreams had died earlier than anticipated. But Russell assembled a team that started the 1973 season with a shut-out win and went on to win the division title in their first season, a feat they repeated in their final season in 1977. Along they way, the colorful crew of scrappy, hairy, paunchy, rowdy ballplayers (and the team dog who would be released onto the field mid-game when a pitcher needed a breather) won over the hearts of Portland’s baseball fans , setting attendance records and building a uniquely personal relationship along the way.
The Way Brothers tell the tale of the Mavericks through a sharply edited mix of archival footage, still photos and newspaper clippings and interviews. Never less than fully engaging from start to finish, this is a baseball documentary for all. It doesn’t assault the viewer with endless stats or arcane baseball minutiae. You don’t have to have played or followed the game to enjoy the film, which effectively builds tension as it climaxes with Bing and the Mavericks’ hard-fought 1977 championship game, an event that the Mavericks and their fans desperately hoped would result in their team’s very first pennant. Shortly thereafter, the Mavericks story came to a forced, abrupt end when the league forced him out to welcome back the returning AAA Portland Beavers, a chapter of the story that adds one final unexpected David versus Goliath climax as Bing fights back in court against the low buyout offer foisted on him by Major League Baseball.
The elephant in the room here is probably the question of just how nepotistic the Ways’ representation of their grandfather feels. Clearly a labor of love, there’s no doubt this is a glowingly positive representation of Bing, who is every bit as much a star of the film as the Mavericks themselves. You won’t hear a negative word spoken of the man, who died in 2003, from the folks that are interviewed in the film, among whom his wife Louise and son Kurt are are both featured prominently. So it could probably be fairly said that this borders on being a work of hagiography. But in the context of the story that’s being told, that approach might be fair enough and it’s an approach that worked for me. And this isn’t just a family affair. Among the interviewees are the former head of the Northwest League, former Portland sportswriters, former Mavericks manager Frank Peters, multiple former Mavericks players and director Todd Fields (In the Bedroom), who, get this, was a bat boy for the Mavericks and clearly had his life changed for the better by his interactions with Bing Russell and his baseball team. They all make clear that the Way Brothers aren’t the only people enamored with their grandfather.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball premieres July 11 on Netflix.