3.5 / 5 stars
Every generation loves to wax poetic about the good ol’ days, especially when it comes to professional sports. Just ask your pop or uncle: It was a simpler time. The boys played for the love of the game. You could relate to the players.
Sure, time plus sentimentality can play with one’s memory, but with every media mention of Lebron James and Alex Rodriguez, I’m thinking the stories might be true. Enter The Battered Bastards of Baseball as exhibit A.
It’s the 1970s. A character actor named Bing Russell (yep, Kurt’s dad), having just finished a long run on the legendary TV show Gunsmoke, blazes a trail to Portland, Oregon to start a minor league baseball team. The charismatic Russell had little cash but plenty of everything else it takes to start a business. Think P.T. Barnum with a bolo tie and a baseball bat.
Filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way — Bing’s grandsons, by the way — don’t have too much to work with beyond news footage and talking heads, but they make it clearly apparent that Bing was a showman of the highest order, who felt it was his destiny to fill a cultural hole in Portland, a city he grew to love and vice versa.
The Way brothers began their obsession with the Portland Mavericks after finding a single team photo (shown here), and share their passion for what became one of the wildest, most unlikely teams in organized sports. Through on-camera storytelling from a dozen or so team members including Kurt, filmmaker-to-be Todd Field, and a female general manager, we learn about this lovable underdog story; of a natural leader bucking the professional baseball establishment to not only field an entertaining product, but to snag first place in the division.
With their source material lacking variety, the boys lean on their most engaging subjects, namely Kurt Russell and Field in recent conversations, and Bing, via 40-year-old broadcast news appearances. By wisely following a sequential telling of the Mavericks’ short history, The Battered Bastards of Baseball just about holds up as a documentary, usually great fun and relatively dramatic as the baseball bureaucracy starts firing arrows at Russell’s class-A kingdom.
After a while, though, the stories are so good that we want to see more of them. This is not uncommon in historical docs, of course; HBO producers, as a comparative example, generally have more to work with for their film on the A’s and Raiders of the 1970s, than two 20-somethings with little more than a bloodline to their story.
But we get the gist of it. And we get that sort of indefinable free-wheeling attitude of the swingin’ 70s, the beards and the beers and the brooms lit on fire. Free agency was on the way. So was the monopolistic stranglehold of Major League Baseball and its good ol’ boy networks. And, eventually, so was the growth of Portland into a Pacific Northwest hipster paradise. When you look at it all that way, we should probably be grateful to The Battered Bastards (title by renegade pitcher and author, Jim Bouton) for capturing a time in sports that’s gone forever. Hey, one day we’ll share it with our grandkids over a drink or two.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball is currently available exclusively on Netflix.