5:30am

Fri July 18, 2014
NPR Story

Actor Kurt Russell Talks About The Family Business: Baseball

Originally published on Fri July 18, 2014 8:00 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Portland Mavericks were a minor league baseball team that played in the 1970s. Their story is told in a new documentary on Netflix. It's called "The Battered Bastards Of Baseball." This team was irreverent, unorthodox. The roster included a bunch of hopefuls and has-beens.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Mavericks were founded by a baseball outsider, the actor Bing Russell probably best known for his role as Deputy Clem on "Bonanza." But he was also a serious student of baseball.

GREENE: And when "Bonanza" ended, he left LA to create what was at the time the only independent baseball team in the minors. All the other teams were affiliated with major league clubs. This was in Portland, Oregon, in 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BING RUSSELL: It was an exciting, exciting year, and this is just the greatest baseball city in the world if it's not the greatest city in the world.

GREENE: This actor's obsession with baseball was no surprise to Bing's son, Kurt Russell, also an actor. And it turns out, also a ballplayer. Kurt played for the Mavericks, and he was vice president of his dad's team. When we caught up with Kurt Russell, he told us baseball was always the family business.

KURT RUSSELL: I learned to pivot and turn to the left and right. I learned how to get a good start stealing second base. My mom didn't have a backyard with a pool and beautiful grass and trees. Our backyard was a batting cage. It was how I grew up. I just happen, you know - our other business was the picture business and television. That was how he made his living, and that was how I later started, you know, to make my living. But baseball was always the family business.

GREENE: But the business of baseball is exactly what the late Bing Russell was up against. Especially the 1970s, baseball was an establishment. The idea of an independent team was an affront. Even the city of Portland had doubts. Carren Woods, who became the assistant general manager of the Mavericks, recalls in the movie the reaction to Bing Russell coming to town.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL")

CARREN WOODS: Oregon is pretty provincial. We don't like outsiders. So when this guy from Southern California who is an actor was going to come to Portland, there was a lot of skepticism.

GREENE: And probably for good reason. Bing Russell put an ad in a trade paper and held tryouts that resembled a casting call. The hundreds of players who showed up were one motley crew. There are archival interviews with some in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: I think it's the American dream, you know, to just have the chance to play. And being a major league baseball player is not necessarily a worthwhile goal, but being a professional baseball player, I think, is a worthwhile goal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: How long did it take you to get here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: About four and a half days.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: I don't care, you know, about the money. I just want to play ball.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: Baseball is my first love. I always got that dream that I'll make it, but I'll probably have to tell myself I won't.

K. RUSSELL: He caught a lot of flak for that a little bit because it made it look like, you know, a circus time. And he said, I like a little circus.

GREENE: And this team has been compared to a real life "Bad News Bears." But Kurt Russell says, that's just not fair.

K. RUSSELL: "Bad News Bears" was a Hollywood version of people who can't play who win. That doesn't happen in real life. These guys were good players. They had been passed over. They'd hit a manager. They, you know, had sex with a manager's wife, anywhere from, you know - I mean, these guys, you know, were wild guys, you know. Some of them had drinking problems, drug problems, who knew what.

GREENE: And the team really embraced this image.

K. RUSSELL: They'd literally come into town at 4 o'clock in the morning and get the bull horn going and say, lock up your wives and daughters, the Mavericks are coming. The Mavericks are here.

GREENE: Their home games were something to behold. When they were on the verge of sweeping another team, they'd bring out a broom lit on fire. Fans started bringing their own brooms. And there was the team dog, who would occasionally be released onto the field, perhaps some thought at strategic moments to give the Mavericks' pitcher a breather in the middle of a game.

K. RUSSELL: They'd throw a ball in the field. The dog takes off and, of course, the crowd is laughing and, you know, whatnot. And the other team is just pissed off as hell.

GREENE: Despite all these antics, though, the team won. They made the playoffs, and in their five seasons of the existence, they caught the attention of the baseball world and took on the establishment.

K. RUSSELL: The David versus Goliath story that my dad was definitely David. He was the underdog, even though he never saw himself as one. He was.

GREENE: And Kurt Russell says his late father's legacy lives on.

K. RUSSELL: The legacy is that sometimes there's a diamond in the rough that you miss, and they deserve a chance again to show people what they can do. And four of them made it back to the big league off the Mavs and now there are lots of independent teams and independent leagues where guys have the opportunity to do what those four guys did.

GREENE: The documentary on the Portland Mavericks is called "The Battered Bastards Of Baseball," and it's on Netflix right now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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