- The Battered Bastards of Baseball dir. by Chapman Way and Maclain Way
In 1973, Bing Russell, an actor best known for his supporting role in Bonanza and for being the father of teen idol Kurt Russell, was looking to fill time in the wake of his show’s cancellation. He founded an independent Class A minor-league baseball team in Portland, Oregon—the Mavericks. Over the next five years, the Mavericks, a squad of has-beens and never-weres, used its relative success to embarrass Major League Baseball and its minor-league affiliates while rekindling Portland’s enthusiasm for baseball.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a seventy-three-minute documentary on the Mavericks produced by and exclusively streaming via Netflix. The documentary explains how the Mavericks found their home in Portland after the city’s previous minor-league team, the Class AAA Beavers, left town because of poor attendance. The Mavericks were the only independent baseball team at the time that played against the MLB’s minor-league affiliates.
Directors (and brothers) Chapman and Maclain Way depict the Mavericks as a group of ragtag MLB castoffs. They spin this familiar narrative through interviews with former Mavericks players, coaches, and staff. “Everyone had been rejected,” manager Frank Peters says of his former team. “[The MLB] couldn’t stand [Bing Russell],” adds Russell’s son Kurt. While the Mavericks played only Class A minor-league baseball, they attracted the attention of their Class A opponents’ big-league franchises. The Way brothers suggest Bing and the Mavericks’ relationship with Portland contrasted MLB franchises’ connections to their hometowns. The filmmakers indicate that Bing outsmarted the MLB by telling his players to engage fans rather than following his more prominent competitors’ treatment of fans as little more than a revenue stream.
Bastards’ David vs. Goliath narrative reaches its climax through focusing on the Mavericks’ inability to win the league championship. The Mavericks had better teams, the interviewed former players assert, but irritated MLB franchises would send their best Class AAA and AA prospects down to their Class A squads just to make sure the Mavericks lost in the playoffs. The film thereby provides a twist on the underdog narrative: David lost—at least on the field—because Goliath called in his friends for backup.
The Way brothers suggest that, even though they never won a league championship, the Mavericks were winners against the MLB establishment. Bing Russell won a cash settlement against the owners of the Beavers once they returned to Portland and used the MLB’s territory rules to drive the Mavericks out of business; the bat boy, Todd Field, became the Academy Award–nominated director of In the Bedroom; and pitcher Rob Nelson went on to invent the popular chewing gum Big League Chew. The Mavericks are also presented as symbolic victors who had fun and entertained fans. Whether they won or lost was secondary to the vibrant atmosphere they created.
Mavericks pitcher Jim Bouton, who was blackballed from the major leagues because of his infamous memoir Ball Four, told a teammate that his tenure with the team was “the [End Page 234] first time baseball’s really made sense to me.” Bastards achieves its greatest success by using archival footage of players mingling in the stands with fans and horsing around on the field. The crowds were large and enthusiastic, a direct contrast to Portland’s previous team, which initially left because of civic indifference.
Bastards’ attempts to forge a legacy for the Mavericks are only partly successful, for three main reasons. First, the Way brothers do not acknowledge their status as Bing Russell’s grandchildren. The hidden connection to Bing causes one to question the line that separates their efforts to document history from their desire to preserve their grandfather’s legacy. Second, the film’s narratives are one-sided. No interviews were conducted with anyone who played against the Mavericks, a perplexing choice given the many surviving baseball players who did. Third, and most broadly, the film—like many documentaries—privileges telling a...