“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is now streaming on Netflix. R, 79 minutes, three stars out of four.
Bing Russell was never the guy at the center of the frame. A “plumber actor,” as his more famous son Kurt called him (not unkindly), Russell worked hard in the ’50s and ’60s in small parts in countless Hollywood Westerns, perhaps best known for playing Deputy Clem on 13 seasons of “Bonanza.” I didn’t know “Bonanza” had a “Deputy Clem” either.
Russell never took center stage until he left acting, and Hollywood, to become the central figure in one of the strangest and most likable sports stories in modern baseball. In 1973, Russell went to Portland, Oregon, a city still reeling from the loss of its AAA minor league team, the Portland Beavers, the year before. And with a $500 fee to the city, he started his own team, the Portland Mavericks, an upstart collection of has-beens and never-weres. Alone in minor league baseball at the time, the Mavericks had no affiliation with a major league franchise. It was a team of plumber players.
The vividly entertaining documentary “The Battered Bastards of Baseball,” directed by Chaplain Way and Maclain Way (Russell’s grandsons), chronicles the rise and fall of this unlikely baseball powerhouse. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was picked up by Netflix and began streaming on the site last Friday.
Obviously, when the film’s subject is the filmmakers’ grandfather, one can hardly expect a cold-eyed evenhandedness to be at work. But the viewer feels endeared to Bing Russell from the start, a big, John Schuck-esque guy with charisma to burn; it’s no surprise his favorite part was in a stage production of “The Music Man.” But although he struck a larger-than-life figure, Russell knew baseball — he held open tryouts and was adept at sizing up a player, finding value that other teams had cast off.
He assembled a Mavericks roster that was full of hairy, smelly, somewhat paunchy players, many in their 30s. As player Rob Nelson put it, they “led the league in stubble.”
But they could play. The Mavericks may not have had the young strength they once had to hit homers, but they made up for it by being fast. The extensive game footage show players stealing bases and sliding into home plate with an almost giddy beer-league abandon. In fairness, the affiliated teams that the Mavericks played were more interested in grooming players fort the majors than winning games. But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt to have your ass kicked by a team full of scruffy oldsters, and during the playoffs the other teams started sending top players down to their single-A clubs to try and keep the Mavericks from dominating.
The Ways’ film has the same sort of cocky swagger as the team, mixing archival footage of the Mavericks’ mutton-chopped glory, retro-modern graphics, and profanity-laced interviews with the players, including Kurt Russell, who was a designated hitter for the team and whose pride in his father’s iconoclastic spirit is palpable. But the best lines in the film may go to director Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”), who as a youth was the Mavericks’ batboy. (He proudly holds the distinction of being one of the few, if not the only, batboy in the history of baseball to get ejected from a game.) But for all its spirit, the Ways brothers have made a lean and efficient piece of storytelling, compressing five seasons and a host of colorful characters down into under 80 minutes.
The villain in “Baseball” turns out to be not another team like the Bellingham Mariners, but organized baseball itself. Uncomfortable with the team’s winning streak and its ability to fill a stadium, baseball flexed its muscles after the 1978 season and was able to push the Mavericks out of Portland and put the Beavers back in.
It’s a bittersweet ending — the closest Bing Russell gets to a victory is a six-figure settlement — but what’s a baseball movie without a few tears.” “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is a film that’s brash, funny, inspiring and not a little enraging; baseball, and baseball movies, should be made for teams like the Mavericks.