Baseball's Battered Bastards Made the Game Fun… and Occasionally Dangerous

The short-lived Portland Mavericks take a victory lap with their owner Bing Russell. Fudge Photography

After the hit TV show Bonanza ended in 1973, actor Bing Russell, who played Deputy Clem Foster for 13 years, moved to Portland, Oregon, and started an independent baseball club. The team, which he called the Mavericks, was, by design, made up of players who had been rejected by the growing corporatization of the Major League Baseball establishment. At first, no one took Russell's ragamuffin enterprise seriously. They were paunchy, bearded brawlers and drinkers, with little regard for the clean-cut formalities of the game. But, by the mid-1970s, the Mavericks were presenting a serious problem for the MLB's A-class minor league.

"It was a continual headache because those guys were out to prove a point," said Northwest League President Bob Richmond in a new documentary about the Mavericks, The Battered Bastards of Baseball. "One of the points they wanted to prove was that they could beat organized baseball franchises." And prove it they did. They were frequently the best team in the regular season, and by 1977, they had set the all-time attendance record for a A-class ball club. As Richmond explains, it was an embarrassment for the MLB. Players that the league had either cut or turned away were joining up with the Mavericks and making easy work of their best teams. For example, the first game the Mavericks played against an MLB-affiliated club, they won. It was a no-hitter.

Battered Bastards, which debuted at Sundance and was released on Netflix last week, explores how the team achieved this unlikely success. "We just never gave up and were relentless," Frank Peters, the Mavericks manager from 1974 to 1975 says in the film. "I didn't have any signs. If you stole bases then steal the base. If you want to hit home runs then hit home runs. So there wasn't anything restricting them from giving it one last go."

Behind the team's success was owner Bing Russell. Though few knew it when he founded the Mavericks, Russell was a lifelong baseball fanatic. Before he went to Hollywood, he was a pro ballplayer. After an injury finished his career, he took up acting and began using his son, actor Kurt Russell, to shoot baseball training films. Kurt recalls in the film that his father put a batting cage in the backyard of their house and, on one occasion, gave him an 80-page baseball quiz. Explaining his obsession with baseball, Russell once commented, "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 a major franchise."

By the 1970s, that world was all but gone. MLB had expanded its minor league system by either buying up or shutting down all the independent leagues in the country. The Maverick's, which were the only independent team when they formed in 1973, were Bing Russell's reaction to this corporatization. The team scoffed at the professionalism demanded by MLB-affiliated club owners (every other minor league team in America): Maverick players regularly got themselves thrown out of games; they drank and smoked in the dugout; and they had a team dog so that, when it looked like their pitcher needed a rest, they would let the dog out onto the field to delay the game. Their most well-known stunt occurred when the team would win all the games in a series (which is known as a "sweep"). After a sweep, Mavericks third baseman Joe Garza would jump up onto the dugout, light a broom on fire, and wave it in the air. Soon, the crowd began following suit. A journalist once asked Garza about this odd ritual. "Sometimes baseball games are dull," he said. So, one time, he lit a broom on fire. "[Bing] really liked it. And he wanted me to do it again. All they can do is fine me. Bing, you know, he's been taking care of my fines."

So enjoyable were these antics that even the MLB's Northwest League president Bob Richmond concedes in the film that he had liked the team. "They were fun. And they did stuff that the stodgy folks in baseball said that you shouldn't do," he says. "The fans loved it. And I loved it. I just couldn't tell Bing I loved it." Russell's Mavericks proved that, even as organized baseball was moving into a more corporate era, fans still longed for its raucous early years.

There is perhaps no greater example of this clash of eras in the 1970s than the Cleveland Indians' ill-fated promotional endeavor, 10-Cent Beer Night, which occurred 40 years ago last month.

The story, recently recounted by ESPN, begins in May 1974, when Cleveland lost to the Texas Rangers in Arlington. During the game, a fight broke out between the two teams and Texas fans began throwing food and other debris at the Cleveland players. The Texas manager, Billy Martin, told the media he wasn't afraid of Indians fans striking back when the two teams faced off in Cleveland a week later. "They don't have enough fans there to worry about," he joked. To prove Martin wrong, Cleveland owners declared the upcoming game against Texas "10-Cent Beer Night" in an effort to attract a large crowd. On June 4, 1974, over 25,000 Cleveland fans showed up to drink and hate Texas. At first, the crowd was manageable—predictable, even. A woman tried to kiss an umpire; a father and son ran out onto the field and mooned the crowd. But by the third inning, fans had commandeered the beer truck. Six innings later, when a Texas outfielder kicked a drunken Cleveland fan for running onto the field and stealing his hat, a riot broke out. Fans began pouring over the walls and onto the field to attack the Rangers. At this point, the Rangers armed themselves with bats to fend off the violent fans. Soon, Indians players were also on the field defending, the Rangers from Cleveland fans. When an umpire was hit in the head with a chair, he ended the game. The event finally came to a close only after riot police were called in, the lights were shut off and tear gas was used. When the gas cleared, it was discovered that three bases were stolen (and never seen again). Texas was given the win.

A month later, Cleveland's owners held another 10-Cent Beer Night.

A lot of nice things have been written about Battered Bastards, and they are all deserved. The film articulates how far baseball today is from the hardscrabble years of 10-Cent Beer Nights and the Portland Mavericks. Today, "Major League Baseball is a product," Field says in the film. "A corporate product. It's farmed out the same way."

The Mavericks lasted only five seasons before the MLB drove it out of town. They were replaced by the MLB-affiliate Portland Beavers. MLB no longer allows its minor league teams to play independent clubs.

One of the most famous Maverick players was Jim Bouton, a onetime major-league pitcher who was shunned by the league for publishing Ball Four, a tell-all memoir about the culture of the sport. "The Mavericks, boys and girls, was a baseball team that I'm proud to say I played for," he says. "Our motivation was simple: revenge. We loved whomping fuzzy-cheeked college bonus babies owned by the Dodgers or Phillies. Will there ever be a Mav old-timers day, you ask? Nah. Too many players in the witness-protection program."