Bing Russell had several claims to fame. He played Deputy Clem on NBC's blockbuster western series "Bonanza." He's the father of movie star Kurt Russell. And he owned a baseball team.
Not the Dodgers, mind you, or the Yankees or any team you probably ever heard of. It was the Portland Mavericks, an independent team in Oregon that played in the Class A Northwest League. He owned it between 1973 and 1977, the only independent team of its time — and Russell ran it by his own rules.
Every year, Russell would hold an open tryout for players, a kind of grown-up "Bad News Bears." The team was composed of players — many over the age of 30 — who had been rejected by major league baseball organizations.
"He was a very colorful character, larger than life," said his grandson Chapman Way of "Pa," who died at the age of 76 in 2003.
Way's younger brother Maclain noted his grandfather would always stand up for him — sometimes vehemently. "He would get tossed out of my Little League games. He was a chain smoker. He was not going to change by any means."
Now the Way brothers have made a documentary about their grandfather and his beloved baseball team called "The Battered Bastards of Baseball" which opens Friday at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills for an Oscar-qualifying run and also will stream on Netflix.
The Way brothers saw a connection between Russell's acting career and the way he ran the Mavericks.
"I think Bing had felt rejected," Chapman, 27, said in a recent interview with Maclain, 23. "I think Bing saw himself in a lot of these baseball players — he never really got the chance to be a star. He created an environment where all of these rejected players could come and have this moment in the sun."
It's no wonder, said his grandsons, that fast-talking, colorful Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man" was the veteran character actor's favorite role. "Bing was Harold Hill," said Maclain.
"We lived four doors down from him in Thousand Oaks," said Chapman. "One day I looked out the window and Mac was probably 7 or 8. My father's car was going down the street and Pa was in the passenger seat and Mac was in the driver's seat. He was off the charts, but we loved him."
A lot to chew on
The documentary features vintage interviews with Bing Russell, as well as new ones with their grandmother Lou, their uncle Kurt, who played for the Mavericks, and some of his teammates. They gathered footage from all over, including their grandmother's garage.
Among the colorful cast of players on the team were Jim Bouton, the former New York Yankees pitcher who was persona non grata in the major leagues because of his controversial memoir, "Ball Four," and pitcher Rob Nelson, who created the popular bubble gum brand Big League Chew.
"We would always get these huge boxes of Big League Chew sent to our house, and we had no idea why," said Chapman, laughing.
As a team owner, Russell broke down barriers, for example hiring a woman general manager and an Asian American general manager. Portland embraced these underdogs who were not only entertaining, but league champs. They broke Class A short-season attendance records — in 1977 they drew more than 125,000 fans.
Growing up, the Ways didn't know much about the Portland Mavericks. "He would go to Portland every summer and the family would stay here," said Chapman. "Everyone knew he had this team, but there wasn't a lot of knowledge about it."
Then about five years ago, because they were "poor independent filmmakers," their grandmother hired them to do chores around the house. "We were organizing her office area and I came across the 1975 roster photo," said Chapman.
"They were all in a line and four of them had their shirts off and a few of them were drinking beers," he noted. "There was a dog running around in the photo. It was so different than any team photo I had seen."
He showed the photo to Maclain, who did a quick Google search on the team without much success. "The Mavericks are kind of forgotten," said Maclain.
Having a ball
As a kid, Bing Russell would hang out at the Yankees' training facility in St. Petersburg, Fla. He got to know a lot of the greats like pitcher Lefty Gomez and first baseman Lou Gehrig, who gave him a bat.
Russell earned a business degree in Dartmouth and played in the minor leagues until his career ended when he was hit in the head by a ball. He headed out to Hollywood where he became a hardworking character actor starting in the 1950s.
But he never forgot his baseball roots. So when the Portland Beavers, which had been the farm team of several major league teams, moved to Spokane, Wash., Russell formed the Mavericks.
"I am not a huge sports fan," said Chapman. "When I watch professional sports, I feel like I don't know the players — the teams are interchangeable. When I came across this story I said, 'This is a team I would love to root for.' I think Bing's background in show business gave him a leg up on the other owners, realizing that sport was a performance for the crowd."
Russell was a mentor to Todd Field, who was a bat boy for the team and later went on to become a prize-winning writer-director ("In the Bedroom"). Maclain Way said his grandfather valued a bat boy as much as a star player.
"I think that Bing was the kind of a guy who didn't see that difference," Maclain said. "He wanted everyone to have their shot at what they wanted to do."
Organized baseball wasn't fond of these "mavericks," and the team's 1977 season proved to be its last. The Pacific Coast League decided to go back to Portland, and the Beavers returned in 1978. According to the filmmakers, attendance that year for the Beavers dropped sharply from the Mavericks' the year before.
But now the Mavericks have returned with this documentary, which was a crowd favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Now a narrative feature based on the documentary is in the works.
"At Sundance, we were lucky enough to sell the distribution and narrative rights to filmmaker Justin Lin, who is known for the 'Fast and Furious' movies," said Chapman. "We sold it to him as a kind of package deal for Todd Field to write and direct. We felt Todd was the perfect person to tell the story."