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.