You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘The Battered Bastards of Baseball’

A quixotic Hollywood actor (and father of Kurt Russell) brazenly takes on Major League Baseball in this rousing underdog story.


Nick Bertram, Jack Faust, Todd Field, Rob Nelson, Frank Peters, Bob Richmond, Kurt Russell, Lou Russell, Swannie, Ken Wheeler, Carren Woods.

They say you can’t fight City Hall, but surely going mano-a-mano with Major League Baseball is none the wiser. Yet that’s exactly what a charismatic entrepreneur named Bing Russell did in the 1970s, when he started a fully independent single-A ball club in Portland, Ore., that started out as a laughingstock and ended up as a righteous bee in MLB’s bonnet. This stirring, little-remembered episode of baseball history has been lovingly brought to the screen by co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way in “The Battered Bastards of Baseball,” a fast-paced valentine to Russell and his quixotic vision so rife with underdog victors and hairpin twists of fortune that, if it weren’t all true, no one would believe it. Unsurprisingly, the docu’s remake rights were snapped up at Sundance by Justin Lin’s production company, with helmer Todd Field (real-life former batboy for Russell’s team) attached to direct.

Russell, the father of actor Kurt (interviewed at length here) and grandfather to the pic’s co-directors, grew up as a baseball-obsessed tot in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the 1930s, where the Yankees came for spring training, allowing young Bing to befriend such Bronx Bomber legends as Lefty Gomez, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. He ultimately set his own baseball ambitions aside to become a Hollywood actor — never a star, but a gainfully employed journeyman (or “plumber actor,” per Kurt) who appeared in dozens of Westerns and TV series, including 13 seasons as Deputy Clem on “Bonanza.” But Russell’s baseball obsession never faded, prompting him, in his spare time, to create his own self-produced instructional films (starring a preteen Kurt) that addressed batting, pitching and fielding techniques in such specific detail that more than one professional ball club were said to have studied them.

Then in 1973, Portland’s resident AAA ball club, the Beavers, pulled up stakes and relocated to Spokane, Wash., amid declining attendance. And Russell, who was spending much of his post-“Bonanza” days lounging by the backyard pool, got his big idea. Just as Hollywood itself was at the dawn of the blockbuster era, so, too, was baseball well on its way to becoming the highly corporatized, multibillion-dollar industry that it is today, with independent minor-league teams (which once numbered in the hundreds) having all been gobbled up by the majors, who turned them into a farming system for future MLB talent. Unfazed, Russell paid all of $500 to the city for the dormant franchise, and the Portland Mavericks were born.

As recounted here, it’s a venture that smacks of pure folly: Russell holds open tryouts, drawing every crackpot dreamer with a bat and a glove for miles around; hires a local bar owner (Frank Peters) as team manager; and anoints Kurt both designated hitter and vice-president. The resulting team, with their paunchy guts and ill-fitting uniforms, looks like they shouldn’t be able to throw or hit straight. But when starting pitcher Gene Lanthorn throws a no-hitter in the first game of the inaugural season, the team’s punchline days are over.

Drawing on a wealth of delightful archival footage (including excerpts from Russell’s homemade training films) plus new interviews with former players, managers, family members and sportswriters, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” follows the Mavs’ irresistible rise, as they clobber one major-league-affiliated team after another and ultimately become a national news story: The New Yorker does a profile; beloved NBC sportsman (and ex-MLB catcher) Joe Garagiola comes to town to film a two-part network special; and, when the team recruits controversial ex-Yankee Jim Bouton (whose 1970 memoir “Ball Four” made him a pariah in the majors), Johnny Carson welcomes him onto “The Tonight Show.” Around that same time, the MLB powers-that-be get their panties in a twist and decide they want to reclaim Portland for their own purposes, leading to a lawsuit — and an outcome — that seemingly could only happen in the movies. How exactly did it take someone so long to bring this tale to the screen?

The filmmakers keep things moving at a clip — the entire movie, credits and all, clocks in at a trim 73 minutes. Baseball buffs are the logical audience, of course, but it’s hard to imagine anyone not being seduced by Russell’s irrepressible joie de vivre, and his intense personalization of a game that has become increasingly depersonalized with each passing decade. Russell died in 2003, but in this movie his spirit lives, and one hopes that it may prove infectious.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Battered Bastards of Baseball'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 24, 2014. Running time: 73 MIN.


(Documentary) A Stardust Frames production. Produced by Juliana Lembi. Executive producer, Nancy Schafer.


Directed, written by Chapman Way, Maclain Way. Camera (color, HD), Chapman Way; editor, Chapman Way; music, Brocker Way; sound, Gerald Beg, Glen Micallef, Chuck Fitzpatrick; re-recording mixer, Paul Hollman; animation, Regino Roy III.


Nick Bertram, Jack Faust, Todd Field, Rob Nelson, Frank Peters, Bob Richmond, Kurt Russell, Lou Russell, Swannie, Ken Wheeler, Carren Woods.

More Film

  • Mediapro Unveils The Mediapro Studio, With

    Spain's Mediapro Unveils New Studio, With 34 Series in Production (EXCLUSIVE)

    The Mediapro Group – the Barcelona-based multinational co-founded by Jaume Roures – is unveiling The Mediapro Studio, with 34 scripted series already in production worldwide. The new production company will be based in Fuencarral, northern Madrid, just a few miles from Netflix’s soon-to-open European production hub. It will be overseen by Javier Méndez as chief [...]

  • Fox Searchlight logo

    Film News Roundup: Fox Searchlight Launches Searchlight Shorts

    In today’s film news roundup, Fox Searchlight starts a shorts channel, Uma Thurman signs with ICM and Miramax signs animation exec Michael Lachance. SEARCHLIGHT SHORTS More Reviews Off Broadway Review: John Guare's 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride' Concert Review: Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets Dishes Up Seminal Pink Floyd Delights Fox Searchlight Pictures’ chairmen Nancy Utley and [...]

  • ImMature - cr: MX Player

    Indian Streamers Ramp up Original Productions

    Ever since global streaming giants Amazon Prime Video and Netflix entered the Indian OTT space in 2016, the conversation around original series has mostly revolved around them, thanks in part to market leader 21st Century Fox’s Hotstar’s circumspect attitude at the time about producing content. Netflix had great success with “Sacred Games,” while Amazon rode [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Hollywood Agents, Writers Guild Make Little Progress in Talks

    Leaders of Hollywood agencies and the Writers Guild of America made little progress in Tuesday meeting to negotiate proposed rule revisions to how agents represent writers. The WGA said after the meeting — the fifth since Feb. 5 — that talks would resume later this week but did not give a specific day. More Reviews [...]

  • Village Rockstars

    Female Filmmakers Are a Growing Voice in India

    The Indian film industry has historically been a male-dominated one, but the winds of change are blowing across the country, albeit slowly. Better-served than the rest of the country is the Mumbai-based Hindi-language industry, where there are several active female filmmakers including Zoya Akhtar (“Gully Boy”), Reema Kagti (“Gold”), Leena Yadav (“Rajma Chawal”), Gauri Shinde [...]

  • Florence Pugh

    Scarlett Johansson's 'Black Widow' Movie Adds Florence Pugh

    “Black Widow’s” web may soon be growing. Sources tell Variety that Florence Pugh is in talks to join Scarlett Johansson’s standalone superhero film. More Reviews Off Broadway Review: John Guare's 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride' Concert Review: Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets Dishes Up Seminal Pink Floyd Delights Pugh has been on the hot list for this [...]

  • Mira Lesmana Sets up Indonesia Remake

    Mira Lesmana Sets Up Indonesian Remake of CJ's 'Sunny'

    Indonesia’s Miles Film and Korea’s CJ Entertainment are to co-produce an Indonesian remake of Korean hit “Sunny.” The film is a female-driven dramedy about a group of adult friends who reunite 20 years after high school. Directed by Kang Hyoung-chul, “Sunny” was one of the highest-grossing movies in Korea when it was released in 2011. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content