Friday October 27, 2017

The Battered Bastards of Baseball: The unlikely heroes of the Portland Mavericks

The Portland Mavericks / Bing Russell

The Portland Mavericks / Bing Russell (Stardust Frames / Netflix)

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They were an unlikely bunch, led by a rebellious and irreverent father figure who had a deep love for underdogs.

The Portland Mavericks were the last of their kind; a minor league baseball team not affiliated with any team in the major leagues, which was a thing of the past, even in the early 1970s.

The team was filled with players who would likely never make it to the big leagues, or who didn't have the work ethic or desire to make to the big leagues. It was a team of misfits, but fun misfits.

"There was no groomed image ... just these furry, hairy, funny ... guys." - Todd Field, filmmaker and former bat boy

Bing Russell

For 12 years, Bing Russell played the part of Deputy Clem Foster in the popular American television series, Bonanza

Portland Mavericks

Bing Russell as deputy Clem Foster in 'Bonanza' (BonanzaBoomers / Pinterest)

But soon after Bonanza was cancelled in 1973, Russell turned his attention back to his childhood love: baseball.

As a boy, he was a huge fan of the New York Yankees and became their unofficial mascot. 

"Lefty Gomez picked me up as a youngster. I was the peanut-smuggler for the Yankees back from 1936 through 1941, and five of those years we were champions of the worId," Russell is quoted as saying.

"I thought that he was crazy ... and now that I'm 26 I can definitively say he absolutely was crazy." - Maclain Way, grandson of Bing Russell

Russell became friends with other Yankee players, including Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, thus cementing his love for the sport early on in his life.

Russell even made it to the minor leagues as a player before turning to acting. And after Bonanza, he became the owner of the Portland Mavericks, an independent professonal baseball team based in Oregon from 1973-1977.

Brothers Maclain and Chapman Way are Russell's grandsons. They're also the filmmakers behind the 2014 documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which tells the story of the Mavericks. 

They tell Day 6 host Brent Bambury that their grandfather was a colourful, larger-than-life character.

"I thought that he was crazy ... and now that I'm 26 I can definitively say he absolutely was crazy," jokes Maclain.

"He was the type of guy that would get thrown out of all my Little League baseball games, but then would be drinking beers with the umpires afterwards because he knew them all", says Maclain.

But the Way brothers say the family lore was always more about Hollywood than sports. Russell's son is actor Kurt Russell, who is an uncle to the Way brothers.

Even though the brothers lived only a couple of houses away from their grandfather and had a close relationship with him, the baseball part of the family history didn't emerge until much later. It was a discovery that Chapman says came about almost by mistake.

"It wasn't until we kind of started finding these old team photographs of the 1975 Portland Mavericks that we started learning more about his baseball past and his baseball history," Chapman says.

Portland Mavericks

Kurt and Bing Russell (BonanzaBoomers / Pinterest)

     

Why The Portland Mavericks

The Way brothers say that Russell's desire to create the Portland Mavericks hearkened back to a different time.

"He kind of wanted to give one more crack at it and bring independent baseball back to baseball." - Chapman Way, grandson of Bing Russell

"He had grown up during a time when there was independent professional baseball leagues. And there were hundreds of these teams kind of scattered throughout the country."

"I think slowly, over the years, major league baseball became monopolized and they started buying up all these minor league territories and turning them into their farm system," says Chapman.

The Way brothers believe that by 1973 their grandfather had realized that all the independent teams were gone.

"He kind of wanted to give one more crack at it and bring independent baseball back to baseball," says Chapman.

The Mavericks went on to be loved by the city of Portland's baseball fans. They set new attendance records and, by many accounts, created a unique and close relationship between the players and the home crowd.

Portland BBB team shot

(Stardust Frames/Netflix)

   

Who Were The 'Misfit' Mavericks

The Mavericks had their own identity.

Portland Mavericks

Todd Field's Portland Mavericks baseball card (Kelly Smith / Pinterest)

"There was no press handlers, there was no groomed image, just these furry, hairy, funny, f-ckin' great bunch of guys," says Todd Field in the film The Battered Bastards of Baseball.

Field is now an actor and Oscar-nominated filmmaker, but in the '70s he was a bat boy for the Mavericks. One of his jobs with the team, as a 13-year-old, was to go down to the local brewery with a dolly and bring back cases of beer to the stadium before games. 

That gives some indication of the players on the team.

According to the Way brothers, Russell found it unfair that so many ball players were rejected by other teams, often because they did not fit into the league's culture. Russell welcomed almost any player who could fit in with the Mavericks' rebel spirit.

"He reached out to a lot of guys and said, 'Hey listen, I don't care if you consider yourself an individual or have long hair or smoke weed or drink beer ... come play for me and the Mavericks'," says Maclain.

Despite the rebel image, there were star players on the team, including Jim Bouton, a former Yankees pitcher known as 'Bulldog' Bouton, who had pitched in the 1963 and 1964 World Series. After the Mavericks' demise, he made a return to the major leagues with the Chicago White Sox.

           

After The Mavericks

The end of the Mavericks in 1977 was a blow to Russell and his players.

The Way brothers say that once a Triple A team began to play in Portland, the big crowds — and the attachment engendered by the Mavericks — never came back.

So what was to became of the Mavericks players?

"One of the bigger stories was [that of] Rob Nelson, who was a left-handed average relief pitcher from South Africa. He ended up inventing the Big League Chew bubble gum in the bullpen of the Portland Mavericks," says Chapman.

Big League Chew went on to become one of the most popular bubble gum brands, selling more than 800 million pouches to date. The gum has also been recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame as a legendary and iconic part of baseball history.

Portland Mavericks

Big League Chew -- bubble gum pouches (Twitter)

Chapman adds that the co-creator of the gum was bat boy, and now filmmaker, Todd Field. 

"Rob and Todd actually cooked up the first batch of Big League Chew bubble gum in Todd's kitchen, when he was ten."

Kurt Russell also played for the team and Maclain says that being a Maverick was a turning point in his uncle's life.

He was a child actor, but he took some time off from acting to play for the Mavericks and to play professional baseball.

"I think when the Mavericks ended, I think for Kurt that was the end of his baseball career too," says Maclain. "He kind of got back into acting and then had a tremendous amount of success in that business."

There is now talk of making a feature film about the Portland Mavericks. When asked who should play Bing Russell, Chapman says Kurt would be the first option.

"Bing was in his early 40s when this happened, and I know Kurt's in his 60s, but maybe if they can do some of that magic Hollywood makeup, I think Kurt would obviously be the first choice."

Portland Mavericks

Filmmakers Chapman (L) and Maclain (R) Way, with their uncle Kurt Russell (son of Bing Russell) at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)


To hear the full interview with Chapman and Maclain Way, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.