For about two weeks now Netflix has tried to convince me to watch a movie that for once I actually had some interest in. The movie was a Netflix Original with a few baseball players on the front cover so it had already won me over. I saw the title, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, and knew it was worth setting aside some time to watch because who doesn’t enjoy a swear word in a title?
Going into the film I didn’t know much about it other than the brief description Netflix had. One thing to catch my attention was that it was about an independent baseball team. I have enjoyed the independent leagues for years now as it is unlike the affiliates. Instead of fresh-faced college graduates knowing they are likely to make a major league roster within a few years independent baseball is a mix of former big leaguers and guys who never made it, now living on their last opportunity to play baseball at some professional level. Even when playing Out of the Park Baseball I had more interest in recreating the Atlantic League (the Northeast’s Independent League) than playing as a Major League Baseball team.
In the first few minutes of this documentary-style film full of interviews, a recognizable face appears on the screen: actor Kurt Russell. Without coming out and directly saying it we piece together that the owner of the baseball team featured in the film, the Portland Mavericks, was owned by Snake Plisken’s father.
Like his son Kurt Russell, Bing Russell was also an actor. He never had any of those iconic roles Kurt had, but he did appear in a lot of famous films specifically westerns. He is best remembered for his role on Bonanza which from my 90s kid perspective is known as “the old cowboy show with the catchy theme music.”
Beginning with a brief history of Bing Russell’s life including why he would even want to own a baseball team, we learn how he went about acquiring the Portland Mavericks. At the time there were no other independent baseball teams in the country due to the expansion of the minor league systems so this was a huge risk for anyone to take.
As the movie explains, Bing had to do all of the work in a very anarchic way. Instead of scouting players the traditional way they recruited through advertising in The Sporting News to announce an open tryout. Men came from all over the country to tryout and from there the players were signed to contracts that by today’s standards would make anyone rethink their life choices.
You can probably imagine how unkempt and wild many of the players signed were considering the circumstances. These were guys who were exiled from professional baseball with something to prove. It was also the 1970s when the world was a far less organized. The opening day roster included grownup versions of the Bad News Bears. The team had mullets, beards, bear bellies, and warrants out for their arrest. They were the first rebels of baseball.
The most famous player to join the Mavericks was Jim Bouton whose book ‘Ball Four’ blacklisted him from Major League Baseball. Way before Jose Canseco was outing players for using steroids Bouton was breaking new grounds by detailing how baseball players were taking advantage of the fame. Thanks to the Mavericks’ independence Bouton found a new home.
My favorite part of the film was the details on how anti-baseball the team was. They weren’t pretty or coordinated. The team won by using their speed and other old-school tactics of small-ball. Other organizations in the Northwest League would specifically send players down in the minor league system in hopes they could beat the Mavericks. It was the world against the Mavericks and the fans in Portland loved it. Bill Veeck was surely jealous of how he had no involvement in this story.
Amazingly there was plenty of footage left of the team even from 40 years ago. It may look like the Zapruder Film, but it gives us that nostalgic joy any baseball historian gets whenever they see archive footage from years ago. This tape transports to the viewer into the stands and puts them among the rest of the Mavericks fans in the stands.
Movies like these remind me why I love baseball so much. A unique untold story I was as unfamiliar with as the female mind, this is something all baseball fans should see.