Bing Russell was a B-movie actor in the 50s and 60s who estimated he had been shot dead 127 times in Hollywood westerns and played the deputy sheriff through 13 seasons of Bonanza. But his most lasting legacy came thanks to his role as the founder and frontman of the Portland Mavericks, an independent baseball team inhabited by no-hopers and has-beens and a pitcher whose hat fell off each time he threw the ball. Incredibly, the Mavericks went on to break attendance records and posed a serious threat to their major league rivals.
This forgotten nugget of sporting history has now been unearthed in a boisterous documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which debuted to wild applause at the Sundance film festival. The film is directed by Bing Russell’s grandsons, Chapman and Maclain Way, and features contributions from his son, the roguish Hollywood actor Kurt Russell, who worked with the team during its mid-1970s heyday. Independent baseball, suggests Russell Jr, is really not so different from independent movies.
“There’s a direct correlation between what the Mavericks were and what Sundance is,” explains the actor when we meet, behind a Main Street shop-front, on the day after the premiere. “The system ain’t going to finance or distribute your movie unless you’re connected to a major studio. You might make your movie, but no one’s going to see it. What Robert Redford has done is give people a place to play. And that’s exactly what my dad did with independent baseball. He gave all these outsiders the opportunity to play.”
Maybe the film draws parallels between the father and son, too. It strikes me that Russell, now 62, has steered a peculiarly freewheeling course through American movies. He starred in the John Carpenter cult classics The Thing and Escape From New York, romanced Meryl Streep in Silkwood and played Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof. Semi-detached from the Hollywood establishment, he now lives in Vancouver with his long-term partner Goldie Hawn.
“Someone once said to me: ‘You know what’s interesting about your acting career? It looks like it was handled by a drunken driver.'” Russell cackles. “And that’s absolutely true. It is what it is.”
Billed as the story of “the real-life Bad News Bears”, the documentary shows how Bing held open trials in Portland, Oregon after Major League Baseball pulled out of the city. He banned corporate sponsorship from the grounds and stuffed the bases with chain-smoking, beer-drinking thirtysomethings, the sort of players a professional outfit would have run a mile to avoid. The team mascot was an excitable dog that would would sometimes chase the ball on to the field, forcing the umpire to stop the game. The establishment regarded Bing as a huckster and the Mavericks as a joke. “They led the league in stubble,” quipped one critic of the team.
But here’s the thing: the Mavericks proved a haven for aging underdogs, plucky kids and fading stars in need of redemption. The team’s 10-year-old batboy, Todd Field, would go on to direct the Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom. Its charismatic pitcher, Jim Bouton, had been drummed out of the major leagues after writing an expose but could still throw the ball with lightning speed. Against all the odds, the Mavs surged to a string of victories over their big-money rivals and snagged the attention of TV host Johnny Carson. But the drunken idyll could not last. The sniffy executives at Major League Baseball finally stepped in to force Bing from his perch and his boozy success story wound up in the courts.
The Way brothers began working on the film after discovering a stash of old clippings among their late grandfather’s possessions. “We financed the entire thing ourselves,” Chapman Way tells me. “We sold cars, we sold computers, and I slept on my brother’s couch. We took no salary on this movie. I think our grandfather would have approved of that.”
The Battered Bastards of baseball attracted such glowing reviews at Sundance that it has inevitably sparked speculation that it will now be remade as a Hollywood drama. Others, though, might see this as a betrayal of the film’s rebel spirit. If Bing was never prepared to sell out, why should his grandsons be different?
As depicted in archive footage, Bing Russell possesses the booming tones of a stage tragedian and the rambunctious air of a riverboat gambler. The former Mavericks boss died in 2003, but his sudden reappearance proved a delight for his son. “My dad could come off as many different things.” Russell says. “You could think of him as a buffoon. You could think of him as a professor. You could think of him as a con-man or as a hard-nosed businessman. He was 360-degrees of a human being and I think the film shows that.”
Russell recalls that once, in the middle of a make-or-break game, pitcher Jim Bouton turned to ask him if there was any place on the planet he would rather be at that moment. Today the actor admits that he had never felt that way on a film set, but that baseball is different. Sport, he says, concentrates the mind and makes you live in the moment.
“Movies are only a part of your life. Baseball is the complete experience. I’ve probably had those times in my personal life. I’ve probably felt that way with Goldie. But when you do find those moments, you had better not miss them. Because there will be a day in your life when you would give anything to be right back there again. So make sure to look around you. Take it all in. Because when you do that, you’re ready to play.”