One great thing about Woodinville Softball is hanging out with Jimbo Weir. Back in the day, he played minor league baseball for the San Francisco Giants organization. Later, he led the Lady Falcons to two State Championships, and gained national attention when his girls beat a Kingco opponent 64-0. (That’s a story unto itself – to be explored in a future article).
A few weeks ago, Jimbo was at the Woodinville-Redmond game at Hartman Park. His daughter Dani now coaches his former club. He’s often on hand to cheer the team on.
Jimbo and I got into a discussion about baseball documentaries. He asked if I’d ever heard of the Portland Mavericks. I shrugged and said no. He began talking about a film that was so good he’d watched it three times in less than a week. It was about an independent minor league team in the 1970s that included players such as legendary actor Kurt Russell and bestselling author Jim Bouton. Jimbo was jumping out of his skin with excitement as he described the film. He said it was called The Battered Bastards of Baseball.
BACK IN 1973, the TV series Bonanza came to an end after fourteen years. One of the stars was longtime actor Bing Russell. He was looking to do something new. When he was a kid, he’d become a clubhouse kid with the Ney York Yankees, by sheer happenstance. He befriended Lefty Gomez, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. He carried those memories into adulthood, and always loved baseball.
After Bonanza ended, he’d heard that Portland, Oregon had lost its minor league team. He decided to create a new one. He named them the Portland Mavericks. Said Bing Russell: “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 major league franchises.”
The Mavericks put ads in newspapers for open tryouts. It was roundly mocked and considered ludicrous. Vagabonds and misfits from far and wide flocked to Portland for a shot at their dream. As noted in the film, most of the men were in their 30s with a bit of a paunch, and they led the league in stubble.
“You had a team that was playing a game for one thing -- the love of the game,” Jimbo Weir said. “They didn’t have to answer to anybody else. Not like regular minor league teams that are used to develop players. As a player you’re always thinking `Who’s watching?’ That’s how I felt when I played, you knew you were being scrutinized. But these guys were out there for the love of the game. No bonus babies. They answered an ad in the paper! One guy came from Australia. Guys riding across the country in motorcycles… Yeah, one guy’s mom said he looked like Charles Manson from the lost years. Nobody else would have signed him. He looked like Bigfoot.”
The documentary was produced by Todd Field, who had been a bat boy for the Mavericks. He used archival footage of the late Bing Russell. He also used modern day interview footage of Bing’s son Kurt Russell as he talked about being a young player on that ballclub.
Kurt Russell said that when the Mavericks debuted, they had no idea how they’d fare against actual minor league pro teams. On Opening Day 1973, he worried they might lose 20-0. But when their own pitcher Gene Lanthorn tossed a no-hitter, they knew they were in for a fun ride!
THE NEXT FIVE YEARS were a rollicking good time filled with wins, laughter and publicity stunts. The locker room featured players and coaches smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. The team was led at one point by manager Frank Peters, who later in life would serve three years in prison. Along the way, the city of Portland grew to love this crazy cast of characters. The Mavericks broke minor league attendance records.
“One of my favorite parts of the movie was when three players and the bat boy got kicked out of a game,” Jimbo said with a laugh. “And Bing couldn’t have been prouder of the bat boy.”
Jimbo also loved the fleet-of-foot showboat Reggie Thomas.
“A few minutes before each game, here comes Reggie in his Cadillac, making a grand entrance. Like someone said in the movie, `What the hell does he need a car for? He lives one block away!’ But they said `It’s Reggie man, he just needs that.’ And a few years later, Reggie disappeared and the rumor was that he became an FBI informant. To this day he still hasn’t been found.”
In the Mavericks’ fifth and final season, they were determined to make a run for the league championship. In the interest of not spoiling it for you readers, I won’t disclose what happened or why the team folded afterward. But rest assured, it’s entertaining!
One key player that final season was Jim Bouton. The knuckleball artist had once pitched in the World Series for the New York Yankees. In 1969, he pitched for the expansion Seattle Pilots.
Bouton gained infamy when he wrote a bestselling book called Ball Four. It was an expose that major league baseball wasn’t ready for. So salacious were the details that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to force Bouton to sign a document stating the book was fiction.
Bouton got blackballed from baseball. One thing led to another, and suddenly here he was contacting Bing Russell about getting a roster spot on the Mavericks.
At the end of the ’77 season, a young Kurt Russell came up to Bouton in the clubhouse. He asked “This can’t be as fun as being in the World Series. How does this compare?”
Said Bouton: “When baseball is going good, there’s no place you’d rather be. Would you rather be anyplace else?” Russell said he wouldn’t. Bouton replied, “Well then, there you go!”
“And that’s what has driven me through life,” Jimbo Weir said. “It’s the passion of the game.”