One of the fine traditions in American film is the great sports story, and the doc “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is located right at the place where Hollywood slides into home plate, combining the two worlds in a real-life tale that is almost too good to be true. ‘Battered Bastards’ tells the story of Hollywood vet Bing Russell, father of Kurt, a serious baseball fan who made a go of it in the Portland minor leagues in the 1970s, starting up the independent baseball club The Portland Mavericks. The resulting film is the documentary version of sports classics like “Slapshot” and “Major League,” where a rag-tag, quirky bunch of outliers manage against all odds to inject their sport with a sense of high-spirited fun and anarchy.
In 1972, after 13 seasons as the Deputy on TV Western “Bonanza,” Bing Russell decided to pursue baseball (his life-long love), heading up to Portland with his actor/baseball player-son Kurt in tow. The triple-A team, the Beavers, had just left Portland for Spokane, due to the city’s general lack of interest in the team. Bing rounded up a former pro-baseball-player-turned-restaurant-manager, Frank Peters, and held open tryouts for players, attracting 300 baseball hopefuls who each had at one point been turned away from Major League Baseball. With a healthy dose of showmanship, and little regard for rules or towing the party line, “Portland’s Maverick Baseball Team” managed to enthrall the city with their antics and ace playing.
Around 25 minutes into the film, you will start fantasy casting the near-inevitable Hollywood remake of this story—it’s just too good a story to pass up. Bradley Cooper as manager Frank Peters, Ben Affleck plus a couple of pounds and several dozen loud shirts as Bing, Aaron Eckhart as disgraced former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton, John Cho, Michael Peña, Michael B. Jordan as the hot shot players, a Russell descendent as Kurt … the possibilities are endless.
Directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, who are grandsons of Bing and nephews of Kurt, the film is clearly a labor of love and a dear family project. And the results are just too good not to share. For anyone who loves good sports stories, or just too-good-to-be-true, rebel-against-the-man tales, ‘Battered Bastards’ is a treat, in all of its all shaggy ’70s hair, beer-drinking-in-the-locker-room, official-team-dog-on-the-field glory.
Ultimately, Major League Baseball was threatened by the Russell approach to baseball, which emphasized the fun and the pure joy of the sport that these men so craved. Immune to anti-trust laws, MLB was able to operate as a monopoly in the U.S. and started getting itchy about pushing the Mavs out of Portland after they had done the work drawing crowds to their games (and breaking attendance records in the process). The result was an ugly, but landmark, lawsuit that changed the legal landscape of baseball going forward.
‘Battered Bastards’ is made up of interviews with Kurt Russell, Frank Peters, former players and Portland sportswriters, and former Mavs batboy, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Todd Field, who recalls his days with Bing and the Mavs with a mixture of nostalgia and reverence for the experience (he was even once famously thrown out of a game, as a batboy, for partaking in the wild antics on the field).
The interviews are bolstered with archival footage that would be worth it for the ’70s fashions alone. There are a few moments that could stand to be drawn out or explained in more detail, such as the game when the Mavs lose the pennant. The current iteration uses only archival footage and music to create a sort of step back in time to that particular game, but the ins and outs of the game are not made clear. The film also starts and ends rather abruptly, leaving you wanting more, but it also leaves the story open to continue, in whatever form that may take.
This true-life tale is best described by a quote from the LA Times that appears in the film: “the Mavs are bruising, belching proof that truth is stranger than fiction.” “The Batterered Bastards of Baseball” is an entertaining celebration of the independent spirit and the love of the game. [B+]