When I was young and went to get my haircut at the barber (the one my dad had gone to for years prior to my arrival), my patience of sitting in the chair as a stranger buzzed off my hair was rewarded with a fistful of old baseball cards from a box the barber kept in the corner of the store. The faces on the cards were far from familiar to me, as they were all of players that were long since retired from the game. Hell, half of them were already dead by the time my little grubby hands were able to trace over their faces and statistics. I was not a collector. In fact, I knew very little about baseball besides the basic rules. I played catch with my dad and I tried playing t-ball, but for the most part, I just thought it was something that every kid had to do while growing up.
But every month or so, when I jumped out of the seat at the barber and raced to the beat up shoe box in the corner of the store, I felt a connection to a sport that has meant so much to so many people for nearly a hundred years. This cardboard treasure box was stuffed with history. Names long forgotten piled on top of one another as they waited for me to draft them into my own team – my collection. For this fleeting moment, I was a fan. I felt as much a part of the past time as anyone else and knew what I held in my hands was something of history. On the way home, I would list off all of the players I drafted, asking my dad to tell me as much about each of them that he could remember. I could tell how much the history of the game meant to my dad, and he would explain how popular the sport was when he was growing up. It was a golden age for baseball, and each player who could swing hard or throw a bomb from left field was considered a legend.
It was not until later that I found a bigger appreciation for the sport. I idolized Ken Griffey, Jr., Cal Ripkin, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Barry Bonds. Just like the rest of the country, I was caught up in the hysteria surrounding Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing Roger Maris’s home run record. This was my own way of connecting to a culture that permeated a country’s day-to-day lives for over a century. I felt connected to the game and began to love it, even as new controversies arose each new season. If anything, I respected the game and what it meant to so many.
However, throughout my growing understanding of the game and my own education of the sport, there was one story I never heard before, which was even more shocking given the fact it happened in my own hometown. In 1973, Bing Russell, famed actor and father to Kurt Russell, came to Portland, OR, and created the first completely independent baseball team with his own money. Looking to create a team of misfits and outcasts that were overlooked by the major leagues, Russell held open tryouts for the new Portland Mavericks.
Hundreds of would-be players showed up, all hoping to chase the dream so many had carried since childhood. With beer guts, drug problems, and moppy haircuts and beards, the team shocked a city and a nation. Instilling a massive sense of fun in each of their games, the Mavericks revitalized a dead baseball market in Portland and did what many believed to be impossible – they won. And they won by a lot. Thus is the story of The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a Netflix documentary that tells the brief history of a small team and how this story changed the baseball landscape forever.
Directed by Chapman and Maclain Way, the grandsons of Bing Russell, The Battered Bastards of Baseball is an exceptional documentary that elevates a simple sports story into something much more. It is a story of how one sports team fought a broken system and fell through the cracks by the passion and dedication of a single man in Bing. An actor first, Bing was a master showman and used his experience to transform a franchise into the most popular in all of the minor leagues, breaking attendance records and even earning TV specials, something never seen before with a Single A team. With Bing’s knowledge of the game, deep pockets, and a refusal to let his team fade away, Bing made Portland a baseball town once again. An entire city game together to support a sports team and welcomed a crew of misfits and weirdos – something for which Portland has since become known.
As a documentary, both Chapman and Maclain Way tell the story without any bias from being the grandsons of the topic. They simply present a story that is too good to be true in a concise, elegant format. The doc combines interviews with players and managers from the Mavericks, who are still the characters they were in the past, with high-quality footage from the dugout, locker rooms, and field.
Bing loved the stage, and it is quite remarkable how much footage was available to the directors. We are transported back to the 70’s and become as big of fans of the Mavericks as anyone else. The voice-overs by those who witnessed and experienced the events add a genuine tangibility to the story. Through the footage and interviews it is obvious that Bing touched the lives of thousands, and the first-hand accounts show how greatly Bing influenced those around him. He became his own Babe Ruth-level legend in a sport he loved so dearly.
I cannot recommend The Battered Bastards of Baseball enough. It is an American story told with a sense of reverence and fun that you hardly see these days. In just 71 minutes, Chapman and Maclain tell us a story that has been dying to be heard. It is a true “David vs. Goliath” story that was led by a man bigger than he believed, and it shows us that pure passion and love for anything can change the belief and challenge the imagination of an entire nation. A motley crew of characters showed the world you do not have to be rich or powerful to win, and by simply doing what you love as best you can means more than anything. A crooked smile, a beer in hand, and a love for baseball trumped the dollar.
The Good: A pure, honest look at how a man and his team changed everything
The Bad: The “evil” major league the Mavericks fought against
The Bastards: Glorious