The Portland Mavericks – “The Battered Bastards of Baseball”

In the 1970’s, independent baseball leagues as we know them today were non-existent.  In 1973, there were no independent baseball teams in America, except for one: the newly formed Portland Mavericks.

When Portland, Oregon lost their MLB affiliated team, actor and former professional baseball player, Bing Russell, wanted to create a team of independent players that were capable of playing against the single-A affiliated teams in the Northwest League. These players were all guys who had something to prove. The majority of them had all been rejected or released from a team at some point in their playing careers. Others were just never given a shot in professional baseball. Guys came from all across the country to the open tryouts just for one more shot of living the dream.

The team was full of characters and known as one of the “nuttiest” teams in all of professional baseball, but somehow it all worked.  These “Battered Bastards of Baseball” (taken from a term used in pitcher Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four”) were a wild and wacky bunch who, in their five year existence, had a winning record in each season while taking the division title four out of five times (1973, 1975, 1976, 1977).

In a phone interview with the Seattle Times, Bouton described the team:  “Guys on the Mavericks were there for the right reasons. We wanted to play ball. We were at the end of the line, trying to scramble, put something together and get on the field, against all odds. That’s how badly the game of baseball grips you.”

The documentary, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball”, was released last year and is currently streaming on Netflix.  It features original footage filmed during the team’s five seasons as well as interviews with former players, employees, and Bing Russell’s son, actor and former Mavericks player Kurt Russell.

It’s just a feel good documentary that gives you an inside look at a truly great group of guys in baseball. The footage shows a team that just wanted to have fun playing ball and the city that welcomes them with open arms.  They were regular guys, and the fans flocked to the stadium in record numbers to watch these personable players. If you were a fan of the Portland Mavericks, you KNEW these guys.  There were no barriers between the players and fans.

This documentary highlights exactly what independent baseball is all about.

These players didn’t have the financial backing, young talent or support of a major league organization, but it never showed.   Even without “big league” money, the players still received $500 a month (more than some independent league players today) and had accommodations in every city until, as legend has it, they were banned from staying everywhere in visiting cities due to different indiscretions.

They were often known for their barroom brawls and reckless behavior because, as one player put it, they “didn’t give a (bleep). We wanted to kick your ass. Other teams tried to intimidate us sometimes, and we’d just laugh at them. We played as hard as we could between the lines. And we played harder outside the lines afterward.”

These “misfits” took their carefree attitudes, their bright red bus with mattresses and “Portland’s Maverick Baseball Team” mistakenly written on the side (note the apostrophe placement), their black Labrador “bat dog”, P.L. Maverick, and ultimately held their own in a competitive league.

Although they started out as the only independent team in the Northwest League in 1973, there were two other teams in the new Independent Division of the league during their last season. Even when the Mavericks were dissolved after 1977, the independent trend continued with four indy teams in place during the 1978 season.

Not only did the Portland Mavericks re-create the idea of independent baseball, they also created a lot of other interesting stories along the way.

Keeping with the independent theme, owner Bing Russell kept all corporate sponsorships outside the gates; something that was never done with affiliated teams and stadiums.

They hired the first female general manager in professional baseball, as well as the first Asian American general manager.

They also invented Big League Chew bubblegum.  One night in the bullpen, relief pitcher Rob Nelson came up with the idea for bubblegum in a pouch that resembled chewing tobacco.  Jim Bouton took the idea to Wrigley, and Big League Chew was born.

The Mavericks also had one of the rarest players in baseball, the left handed catcher.  During tryouts Jim Swanson, a southpaw outfielder, noticed that the other catchers were terrible. He caught growing up, but knew there were little opportunities for left handed catchers to shine in professional baseball. He grabbed his catcher’s glove, continued the tryout as a catcher, and won the starting job.

In 1978, affiliated baseball made its way back to Portland.  After the encouraging fan support for the Mavericks, Portland decided to bring AAA baseball back to the town.  When all was said and done, Bing Russell was paid $206,000 (a record breaking sum) to hand over the territorial rights.

If you have Netflix, I highly recommend checking out this documentary. It’s a baseball story that is much deeper than it appears.  Fall in love with the Mavericks like the citizens of Portland in the 70’s.

“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is a story about baseball misfits and rejects who did things their own way and did it well.

Bing Russell’s quote sums it up best: “I love the game dearly and wanted it to go back to the straw hat and beer days when 250 towns had minor league teams and most of them were not supported by a major league franchise.”

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