I watch a lot of documentaries. And usually, I choose them because I’m already interested in the subject. But I’m starting to realise something, the payoff is a lot bigger and better when I watch a documentary about something I wasn’t previously interested in. I have no interest in physics, but Particle Fever was really great. I’d never heard of the titular cult in The Source Family, but they couldn’t have been more fascinating. I’m Australian, therefore, baseball is something I’ve pretty much only ever been exposed to through American TV shows and movies. And none of those TV shows and movies have ever made me want to sit and watch a game. But I just watched The Battered Bastards of Baseball, and now I know why the game is America’s past time.
In the 30s, Bing Russell was a baseball obsessed kid who was lucky enough to live in the small town where the New York Yankees trained. He got to know the team and a lifelong obsession with the game was born. After his own brief career as a pro ball player ended thanks to a head injury, Bing packed up his young family (including son Kurt, yep, that Kurt Russell) and moved to Los Angeles to have a crack at becoming an actor. The gamble paid off, and he spent 17 years on the show Bonanza. When the show ended, Bing had a quick go at retirement, but it didn’t take.
Meanwhile, up north in Portland, the city lost its local baseball team when they were moved to another city. Seeing this as a chance to combine his love of the game, with his TV money and ample spare time, Bing decided to start a new team in Portland, the Mavericks. Three tiers below the Major Leagues, the Mavericks still had to compete with teams owned and controlled by the majors. While billion dollar franchises like the Yankees and Dodgers used their fortune to cultivate talent in these lower leagues, Bing Russell had to compete with nothing more than passion.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball almost looks like it could have been the inspiration for the 80s classic, Major League. Bing held open tryouts and misfits from all over the country travelled to Oregon to take a swing at their baseball dream. Bing hired a high profile and disgraced pitcher from the Yankess when no one else would give him the time of day. Bing encouraged gimmicks that would bring any sort of media attention to his small team. Like letting a dog loose on the field to chase a ball and slow down play when he thought his pitcher needed a rest. And, it worked!
This is an underdog story that is so perfect, a narrative movie couldn’t do it justice. It would seem too contrived to have actors play these roles and live these lives. But as a documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball makes Bing Russell’s unabashed love for baseball totally believable and utterly infectious.