It’s probable your enjoyment of “The Battered Bastards of Baseball,” premiering on Netflix tomorrow, will be dependent on how much you love the game of baseball itself, and that would be a shame. The story about a B-level actor starting an independent minor-league sports team in the mid-1970s is about far more than just baseball, and you’d be depriving yourself of quite a bit of fun.
Do you remember “Slap Shot,” the 1977 Paul Newman film about a small town hockey team? Of course you do. It’s become a beloved film to millions, many of whom couldn’t tell you the first thing about the sport of hockey. “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is to baseball what “Slap Shot” was to hockey, and not just because they both happen to take place in the same era and tell similar stories about small-time sports in a smaller metropolitan town. They’re both about what a little guy can get done with little resources when he truly believes in what he is doing. Bing Russell might not have been as successful as Reggie Dunlop, but the two men always tried to do the right thing for the right reasons, not always successfully.
For those too young to remember Bing Russell or the story of the Portland Mavericks, directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way give you a short breakdown of history. Russell, best known today as the father of iconic actor Kurt Russell, was coming off a thirteen-year run as the sheriff on “Bonanza” when he decided to start an independent single A baseball team in Portland, Oregon in 1973, after the AAA Portland Beavers moved to Spokane. The elder Russell, who grew up friends with many of the New York Yankees greats like Lefty Gomez and Joe DiMaggio, had played minor-league ball until an injury sent him off on his path to Hollywood and decided to take a chance on starting his own team, and over the next five years, proved that he could field a successful franchise from downtrodden rejects cast out from Major League affiliated teams as well as those who couldn’t even get a contract.
As one watches “Battered Bastards,” it doesn’t really matter how much of the story is actually true. The stories, from Kurt Russell and Bing’s widow Louise (who instantly proves where Kurt got his looks from), as well as former Maverick players, coaches and batboys (including former major leaguer Jim Bouton and actor/director Todd Field) and the Portland sports beat writers covering the team, one gets an instantaneous sense of camaraderie and affection those who were there when it happened still feel for Bing and the Mavericks nearly forty years later.
If there is any single complaint one could have about “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is that, at a mere 79 minutes in length, there is so much more that could have possibly been included. But what is included is some amazing archival footage of Bing and the team from a day and age when not everyone was documenting their every move, and some truly wonderful stories of gumption from those who there to witness and make it happen. And what stories to be told. A twentysomething woman being the general manager of a professional sports team! Players encouraged to mingle with the fans in the stands! A professional sports owner at the ballpark every day, available to fans and players alike!
In the end, we may feel disappointed in baseball a bit at how they treated Bing Russell and the Portland Mavericks, a bit saddened that something like this is not likely to happen again in the present or future, but we will remember once again why many of us wanted to play sports in the first place. Not for the money or the fame, but for the love of the game. It’s an oft-used cliche to describe baseball, but every once in a while, we need reminders like this to reaffirm that love.Rating: A+