Review by C.J. Bunce
Like most things about baseball, The Battered Bastards of Baseball reflects as much about an era of American culture, economics, and politics as it tells a wonderfully engrossing story about a brief history of the sport. Independent baseball–privately-owned teams unaffiliated with the Major League Baseball conglomerate–was a thing of the past when Portland, Oregon’s minor league baseball team the Portland Beavers left town. It was the early 1970s and Portlanders weren’t spending their time or money on minor league games. Then enters the well-known TV actor Bing Russell, stepping off his last of 14 seasons on Bonanza where he played a deputy sheriff. Russell appeared in everything back then, from Westerns from Wagon Train to Rawhide, and modern fare like The Munsters, The Rockford Files, and The Twilight Zone. There begins an underdog story, a mix of The Bad News Bears, Necessary Roughness, and Moneyball.
If you’re lucky enough to trip into the Netflix documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, you’ll wonder where this story is headed. It’s a brief history of 1970s Portland and national baseball, and then actor/movie star Kurt Russell and his mother Louise Russell begin discussing his father in a typical documentary format. It turns out father Bing had a life-long affinity for the game, even being part of a significant piece of baseball history as mascot for the New York Yankees, befriending Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, and Lou Gehrig, who gave Bing the bat he used in his last game before retiring. That love for the game apparently never left Bing, who concocted an idea to bring baseball right back to Portland by taking the entrepreneurial route–forming a pure upstart baseball team to play minor league ball. Resurrecting the independent team model he would hold an open tryout for the new Portland Mavericks–if you build it they will come. And they did. Players rejected from the big leagues, some retired, many with paunches, and pre-movie star Kurt on the team, too, some players older than most teams would favor, and a bunch of hairy-faced guys decades before it became the “in” thing–all would come together to form a motley band of brothers that would earn a crack at the pennant. With a 30-man roster, and Bing’s personal brand of fun, fans packed the stadium again, the team setting a record for the highest attendance in minor league history, blazing the trail in other ways, naming the first woman general manager in baseball, Lanny Moss. But like all good things it seems, a villain would enter the picture to wreck it all.
With that nostalgic, cheery vibe of Ivan Reitman’s 1970s movie Meatballs or a dialed-back Slap Shot, Bing’s grandsons Chapman Way and Maclain Way splice together both baseball, Hollywood, and Portland nostalgia to assemble a completely engaging, crowd-pleasing story of underdogs and misfits and the pied piper who led them. If you remember that every baseball stadium in 1970s America–and every grade school–had kids chomping on Big League Chew–you’ll learn that connection to the Mavericks, too.
The Way Brothers have made a memorable baseball movie that belongs on the shelf with the best of the rest. As for documentary quality, the show has smart pacing, revealing little by little, and growing to the pinnacle of the story where they change it up, letting the audience watch the final game play out via what appears to be old, cracked 8mm movie reels, archival films from the actual game.
The title of the documentary comes from Jim Bouton–who would pitch for the team after getting blackballed from the Major Leagues for writing his MLB tell-all book Ball Four: “Us battered bastards of baseball are the biggest customers of the U.S. Post Office forwarding-address department.” The team was filled with all sorts of odd-men-out, a few interviewed for the film including Joe Garza and Frank Peters, a team manager and an invaluable narrator of the documentary (who served an intervening stint in prison unrelated to this story). It’s a story that has the poignant, emotional ups and downs and other trappings of both Eight Men Out and A League of Their Own, certainly worthy of a major film adaptation. The film drew raves upon its release at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Director/producer Justin Lin (Fast & Furious franchise, Star Trek Beyond, Community, Magnum PI) purchased the rights to remake the documentary into a movie adaptation, with Todd Field in discussions to write and direct the film. Field may seem familiar in the documentary–he’s interviewed because he was the Mavericks’ batboy from 1973-1977. He’s since been an actor on many TV shows and he directed and was nominated for an Oscar for his movies In the Bedroom and Little Children. Kurt Russell’s son Wyatt Russell is not in the documentary, but note how as he gets older he looks more like his father (see his co-starring performance in Overlord)–he’d be a good pick to play his father in the Lin movie.
With their family story the Way Brothers remind us how Portland is one of America’s greatest cities, and often serves as a mirror–and sometimes even a bellwether–for the rest of the country, and they add to the long history of baseball stories reflecting the life and times of America. A must for baseball fans, fans of Bing and Kurt Russell, and anyone who likes a good story, The Battered Bastards of Baseball is streaming now on Netflix.