Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Battered Bastards of Baseball

The well-known actor, Kurt Russell, is the son of Bing Russell.  The senior Russell was a minor TV and Hollywood actor, best-known for portraying Clem on TV's Bonanza.  A swaggering virile-looking performer, Bing Russell retired from stage and screen when his handsome appearance coarsened a little with age and spread out.  After knocking about a bit, he purchased a minor league baseball franchise (or an "independent" team) baseball team in Portland, Oregon.  Russell held that property between 1973 and 1978 when the Major League, the business enterprise that has monopoly power over all commercial American baseball forced him to sell the successful enterprise.  The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Champlian and Maclain Way) is a documentary made in 2014 about Russell's team, the Portland Mavericks.  It is a curious, endearing story with such vast screen appeal that the documentary (and the tale it tells) were the subject of a bidding war between all the major American studios -- you may expect to see this story dramatized with Oscar-quality actors and actresses in the next couple years. 

Bing Russell was an eccentric businessman, motivated primarily (as the story would have it) by love of the game.  He had open recruiting for his team and auditioned over 300 would-be professional players -- scruffy dopers, ex-felons, exhausted major league veterans, people who hiked to the try-outs or rode their bicycles.  From this material, Russell amassed a winning team that dominated the Pacific Northwest for five years.  Everything went astonishingly well -- the documentary plays like a version of Robert Altman's MASH adapted to professional baseball.  It's got a lazy, dope-fueled goofiness.  The players all looked and acted unorthodox.  Russell hired a 22 year old girl as general manager and gathered together a loveable multi-ethnic cadre of publicists and support staff.  Of course, there was a serpent in this utopian garden Russell created -- that is, Major League baseball.  The documentary constructs a story that Major League baseball was jealous of Russell's free-and-easy and unconventional (if winning) ways.  Accordingly, the League cancels the franchise by forcing Russell to sell to a successor team.  Even this aspect of the film, however, has a happy ending --  Russell holds out for a high price as the value of this franchise and, in the end, wins an unprecedentedly high arbitration award to reward him for his virtue and good deeds. 

The story is so intrinsically screenworthy, so replete with unique characters and situations, that it seems to be somehow false.  But, so far as I can ascertain, this improbable story with its crowds of wacky characters is true.  The documentary is wholly charming although lacking in much visual interest -- it has to rely heavily upon a two-hour special featuring Joe Garagiola and talk show interviews with people like Jim Bouten, the famous player who returned to the major leagues via Portland after being disgraced and blackballed as a result of his book Ball Four.  There is precious little imagery of the Mavericks actually playing and not much contemporaneous footage of their triumphs. Lots of half-intelligible headlines and newspaper articles scroll across the screen. Several of the players provide interviews among them the prominent American film director and actor Tom Field who served as a bat-boy for the team.  Kurt Russell lends his rugged handsomeness to the show and there are lots of talking heads who recall the good old days eloquently and with much grace.  It's trivia, but good-hearted trivia that stirs the soul and makes audiences happy -- a nostalgic lament for the good old days that we know never really happened. 

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed it very much in this part of the USA the team is still spoken of and loved.