You’re going to love The Battered Bastards of Baseball.
Period. Full stop. Inning over. If you’re a baseball fan, this movie will charm you and keep you smiling throughout its 80-minute run time. Boot up your Netflix account, find this movie in the catalog (which shouldn’t be too difficult, since Netflix acquired this film directly), and start streaming it.
Maybe you’ve already watched this documentary about the independent Portland Mavericks while starved for anything baseball-related over the All-Star break. (This was perfect programming for Wednesday or Thursday night. I’m sorry I didn’t review this film before then.) It debuted July 11 on Netflix.
But if you haven’t seen The Battered Bastards of Baseball yet, directors Chapman and Maclain Way have made a film that will make you remember why you love baseball and how much fun this game can be.
What the story emphasizes is the characters and personalities associated with this team. The biggest and boldest was owner Bing Russell, a working actor best known for playing Deputy Clem on Bonanza for 14 seasons. He was a huge baseball fan, spending his formative years hanging out with the New York Yankees when they trained in St. Petersburg, Fla.
(This is probably a good place to mention that Chapman and Maclain Way are Russell’s grandsons.)
Russell never shook the baseball bug, playing independent ball before he went out to Hollywood. He designed tests covering baseball rules and how to react in various game situations for his sons to take. He built a batting cage in his backyard and cleared furniture out of the living room so his boys could field grounders.
He was also the original Tom Emanski, filming in-depth instructional videos that featured his son Kurt. This was apparently Kurt Russell’s first on-camera gig, long before he played Elvis and became a huge star as Snake Plissken, Jack Burton or Wyatt Earp.
The Mavericks were an extension of Russell’s personality, an independent franchise that took on the establishment of organized baseball and showed that business could be successfully done a different way. He talked to anyone and everyone to promote his team to the people, drawing on his experience from acting in stage productions seeking an audience. Russell was a natural showman, and the people who worked with him absolutely loved him.
Portland quickly embraced this underdog team, having been spurned when the Triple-A Beavers moved to Spokane. Fans could invest themselves in the team, because these players weren’t going to be gone after one year, promoted to a higher level of a minor league organization. The players who tried out for the team and eventually made the roster were also rejects, never drafted or cut by affiliated minor league teams and looking for another opportunity to play professional baseball.
This was Major League in real life. What the documentary lacks in actual baseball (the only actual game footage is from the 1977 Northwest League Championship series between Portland and the Bellingham Mariners, and was apparently shot from the dugout), it more than makes up for with recordings of the open tryouts that attracted hundreds, largely due to an ad placed in The Sporting News.
One player rolled up to the ballpark in a motorcycle. Another admitted he drove four days to get to Portland. The catcher threw left-handed. And the manager was running a bar when he was approached by Russell. These guys just wanted a chance to play baseball. And as improbable as it may have seemed, the Mavericks played really well.
The team won plenty of games during its five-year run as an independent, playing in the Class A Northwest League, and interviews with players on the team and sportswriters who covered the Mavericks explain why. They didn’t have a lot of power, as those sorts of hitters were signed and trained by major league clubs. So the players were extremely aggressive on the basepaths, stealing bases far more so than a traditional minor league team concerned with development and mandated regimen would allow.
Eventually, the Mavericks drew national attention because of their success. That led to former major leaguer Jim Bouton looking to revitalize his stalled career in Portland. (Bouton and teammate Rod Nelson later found success in business, teaming up to create Big League Chew bubble gum.)
Perhaps best of all, the Way brothers don’t just present a systematic progression of events. They tell a story with some suspense and villains. (And if you do some research about the Mavericks online, you’ll discover that the filmmakers skipped over certain people and events to tell that story better.)
Would the Mavericks ever win the league championship that Russell wanted so badly? How much did the other clubs in the Northwest League resent Russell’s approach and what measures did they take to thwart him? And what about the bigger, badder corporate entities that wanted to capitalize on the Mavericks’ success and co-opt it?
If there’s one issue I have with the movie, it’s that it doesn’t necessarily tell the complete story. We don’t ever hear from other owners in the Northwest League, just the league president at the time. It also would’ve been intriguing to hear from the Pacific Coast League executives who decided to steamroll the Mavericks and put a team back in Portland after Russell showed that professional baseball could succeed in that city. Getting insight from more players would’ve been great too, though the film points out that some of them literally can’t be found.
But as the saying goes, history is written by the victors. And Russell and his Portland Mavericks were definitely the winners here. Their story will even live on further, if plans to give The Battered Bastards of Baseball the full Hollywood treatment go through. It would be too perfect not to happen. Kurt Russell could play his dad. And the feature film could — and should — be directed by Todd Field, an Oscar-nominated writer and director who just so happened to be a bat for the Mavericks (and is a foul-mouthed delight in this documentary).
Until that happens, however, enjoy this version of the story. After a week in which we’ve obsessed over manufactured controversies, perceived slights, and an exhibition game that’s controlled to fit into a television event, spend 80 minutes of your time watching a team that didn’t care about stodgy tradition, unwritten rules or appealing to any demographics. These guys just played baseball and had a whole hell of a lot of fun doing so.