“The Battered Bastards of Baseball,” a documentary by siblings Chapman and Maclain Way, manages to be many things at once: an affectionate ode to their grandfather, a distinctive snapshot of a noble sports experiment and a bittersweet glimpse at the possibilities of the many ways in which the game of baseball can be experienced.
The filmmakers tell the story of their grandfather, Bing Russell, the Hollywood character actor who would go on to become the owner of the Portland Mavericks — the only independent team in the league during its existence. Russell’s venture into baseball was met with raised eyebrows, but through the testimony of friends and family (including his son, Kurt Russell), he was born for it. Raised under the mentorship of baseball legends such as Lefty Gomez and Joe DiMaggio, he was obsessed with both the game and acting. When an injury early in his career as a player curtailed his career, Russell went with the natural alternative of pursuing a Hollywood career.
While he would never become exceptionally famous, Russell would enjoy a healthy career in westerns, landing a role in “The Magnificent Seven” and another as a recurring sheriff on Bonanza (he would say that he was “killed 600 times” playing the latter role). During this time he would make mind-bogglingly detailed training videos using very young Kurt as his demonstrator. Once “Bonanza” wrapped, Bing was bored, hungry for an opportunity to make something of his own. That’s when the city of Portland, Oregon lost its MLB team, The Beavers, due to a lack of enthusiasm so dire the stands had been filled by a mere dozen people during games.
Seeing an opportunity to establish a new kind of team, Russell moved to town and launched The Mavericks, assembling a ragtag team that was akin to an island of lost toys. Installing Frank Peters, a kooky former ballplayer who had come to terms with not becoming “the next Babe Ruth,” as the manager of the team, Russell and his new partner would select players who had been rejected by the national league. Many of them were already in their late 30s, or had gained weight, or or simply never showed any exceptional abilities — and all were brought under the wings of Russell, who was renowned for his “talent to read a ballplayer.”
The documentary begins with a few chuckles but becomes riotously funny as we’re regaled with the offbeat antics of the team. For Russell and his team, baseball was about having fun, and even those who can’t sit through an inning of baseball would be hard-pressed to not smile at the way that these players would perform as a spectacle for their audience. When watching some of the players’ goofy traditions — lighting a broom and holding it aloft like a tiki torch for every run, letting the team dog scamper across the field — it’s hard not to wonder why baseball can’t have the same unpredictable energy today.
But The Mavericks weren’t just a carnival for Portland; they were in it to win. It’s thrilling to watch footage of this unlikely team trouncing better-paid and better-trained opponents by stealing bases and running like the wind with every crack of the bat. Eventually becoming a hugely formidable presence and a threat to the national leagues, it was inevitable that higher powers conspired to destroy this unique, independent entity.
Despite the movie’s entertainment value, the directors’ inexperience is felt throughout: Interviewees seem washed out by the use of white backgrounds, the film only represents one side of the story, and the question of whether The Mavericks’ combustible behavior would have ever been sustainable is completely sidestepped. However, there remains a great deal of talent and promise on display here, from the slick editing to the thumping, muscular score. The brothers are also aided by the fact that their grandfather was such a charismatic and off-kilter individual, the kind of guy who fired off memorably amusing sayings like “That’s the way the pickle squirts.” The film is constantly surprising (who knew that “In the Bedroom” director Todd Field was once a bat boy?) and always contains a warm affection for this rogues gallery of unlikely heroes in the ballpark. For that reason alone, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is as breezy and fun as documentaries get.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The subject matter and 73 minute running time suggests that the movie’s sports-savvy audience will most likely seek it out on television, where it’s likely to land a healthy deal. Theatrical prospects are more limited.