I’ve never been an avid fan of baseball, but if a team like the Portland Mavericks existed today, my tune would change. Screening Wednesday at the Los Angeles Film Festival was the excellent and entertaining documentary, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball.” Directed by filmmaking siblings Chapman and Maclain Way, with music composed by brother Brocker Way, the documentary follows the rise and fall of the wholly independent Portland Mavericks Minor League Team from 1973 – 1977. The man who created the colorful Mavericks was a showman himself – baseball enthusiast Bing Russell, Hollywood character actor and father of Kurt Russell (who also played on the team).
Opening with an interview on the Maverick’s field in 1973, Bing tells a reporter that acting’s great, but there’s nothing bigger than the thrill of hitting a baseball. As a young boy, Bing was enthralled with the New York Yankees; he was basically a mascot to players like Lefty Gomez and Lou Gehrig. Bing played in college, but then had a career-ending injury. Shortly thereafter, Bing moved his young family from Maine to Hollywood in order to pursue acting.
In present day interviews, his son Kurt Russell calls his dad, in a loving way, a “plumber actor” meaning he worked constantly as an “in demand” character actor, mostly in westerns. Bing boasted he was killed 126 times. He starred as the sheriff on the popular TV series, “Bonanza” through 13 seasons. When the show ended, son Kurt brought to his attention that the minor league baseball team, the Portland Beavers, was moving to Spokane, mostly because of poor attendance.
There were no independent teams in 1973. Major League Baseball owned every affiliate team in the minors. Since MLB didn’t really care about the team’s records (they would pull good players, send down bad ones), it was hard for a town’s residents to have a rooting interest since they never knew if a player was coming or going.
Enter Bing and his dream of setting up an independent team, the Portland Mavericks. Bing paid $500 for the rights to have a Portland franchise, and then held an open call for players. Hundreds showed up from around the world. These were guys who loved baseball and had tried out for other leagues, but didn’t make the cut or were too old. But their love of the game was great. The Mavericks were born.
The documentary smartly chronicles Bing and his Mavericks through the creation, success, and fights with MLB, who seemed to hate the fact that Bing found great players and managed a team better than the traditional guys. Along the way are interviews with former players, sports writers, fans, and even a batboy named Todd Field, who would later go to Hollywood himself and write and direct the award-winning, “In The Bedroom.”
It’s a marvelous story of a little guy who takes on the big guys, a man who champions his players who all truly love the game of baseball, as opposed to those who are in it for the money and fame. Having success around the festival circuit (the film premiered at Sundance), the film enchanted audiences at LAFF, and “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” will premiere next month on Netflix.
Festival Artistic Director, David Ansen introduced the three brothers, Chapman, Maclain and Brocker at the encore screening Wednesday at LAFF. The brothers explained that Bing was their grandfather, and they knew he owned a baseball team in the 1970’s, but knew little else. Thus began their journey researching and meeting with players, reporters and fans from that period. Amongst their finds were Super 8mm footage of a Maverick’s championship game in their grandmother’s rafters, and two 16mm reels of footage from Todd Field that he tracked down in a sock drawer in Maine.
Not surprisingly, at Sundance, the narrative rights from the documentary sold to producer Justin Lin with Todd Field attached to adapt and direct. But don’t wait for the fictional film, because this documentary is extraordinarily enjoyable (even for non-aficionados of baseball).
Reviewed at the Los Angeles Film Festival, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is 80 minutes and next premieres July 11 on Netflix.