Bing Russell led such a remarkable life that owning a professional baseball team in the 1970s became something of a footnote.
“It had even been a forgotten story in our family,” said his grandson Chapman Way, who with his brother Maclain may have heard all kinds of stories about Russell’s time as a gunslinger on such TV Westerns as “Bonanza” or knew of his passion for baseball since coaching up his son Kurt or their cousin Matt Franco to play professionally, but that time he owned the independent minor league ballclub in Portland from 1973 through 1977, appropriately named the Mavericks? Says Maclain, upon doing a little digging for a potential documentary, “There was this initial reaction like well, are people going to care about this? I care about this because it’s my grandfather, but are other people going to?”
They should. Not only did the Way brothers do right by Russell with the resulting film “The Battered Bastards of Baseball,” but they’ve uncovered a ribald and rollicking David and Goliath tale of a team full of players working on their second and 22nd chance at glory and a fearless owner whose success in a small market raised the ire of Major League Baseball, which was embarrassed to have their minor league squads face the Mavericks, fielding players who put their personal goal of making the big leagues ahead of their team, and became jealous of the Mavs’ close bond with their community. From former Yankees pitcher-turned-MLB pariah Jim Bouton, whose book “Ball Four”’s revelations about the game’s unsavory side led to being blackballed, to the team’s ballboy (and future “In the Bedroom” director) Todd Field, Russell had an uncanny knack for spotting talent and used it to turn a group of misfits into a beloved ballclub, the love for whom flows right off the screen from all the former players, announcers, reporters and fans that the Way brothers interview in reconstructing the Mav’s incredible, all-too-short history.
Following a successful festival run almost as wild as the Mavericks’, the film debuts later this week on Netflix and shortly before, the Way brothers spoke about how they came to learn this incredible piece of baseball lore was actually part of their family history, the things they didn’t want to put in their movie, and creating something special by embracing the limitations of a period that wasn’t well-chronicled.
What was the impetus for turning this story into a film?
Chapman Way: A lot of baseball fans and baseball nuts don’t even know the story of the Portland Mavericks, so when we were doing research, we just thought there was no one else to tell the story because no one else was really interested in telling the story. The big Eureka moment for us was when we found out the Portland Mavericks were the only independent baseball team in professional baseball in 1973. As a filmmaker, that was a very interesting topic. What is independent baseball? What is independent sports? How is that different from the corporatized version of sports today? It gave us a unique and really interesting jumping off point for us to tell this family story.
Since you must’ve heard this story growing up, was it interesting to hear new perspectives on it?
Chapman Way: Honestly, the entire process was being blown away by this story because no one in our family ever really talked about it. Growing up all we knew is our grandfather owned a baseball team during the ’70s. I didn’t even know it was in Portland. So we were constantly uncovering these characters and historically significant [details] that we just thought were fascinating, so it was reaffirming to find out this is a story that has resonated with people outside our family and outside of the baseball world.
Maclain Way: When we were reaching out to people, people were just talking about the Mavericks as such a pivotal moment in their life. We cold-called Todd Field. I was expecting for him to say, “This was a summer in my life. I was 11 years old. I remember it, I kind of don’t…” And it was the exact opposite. We talked for hours with Todd about the Mavericks and what it meant in his life and how much he remembered. Everyone was like that and an early choice Chap and I made was to completely remove ourselves from the documentary. This was not going to be like a grandchild finding out about their grandfather. This is just going to be a great story. Let’s not mess with it and hopefully, it’ll captivate people.
Todd Field has a great quote in the film about how “there’s no groomed image of the Mavericks,” and I’ve heard the team photo that’s interrupted by an unruly dog [seen above] actually was a key touchstone for you as filmmakers. Did you want the style of the film to be a little shaggy to capture the spirit of the team?
Chapman Way: Yeah, absolutely. We wanted the documentary itself to mirror the high energy spirit of the Mavericks and that fast-paced quality, so we went in wanting to make a film that was quick, that moved, that kept you engaged.
Maclain Way: Yeah, and it’s not the most sleek or professional-looking documentary and that’s because I did a lot of the research, Chap edited this and our oldest brother Brocker scored it, so this was a small team. We were probably the lowest budgeted documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and we completely financed it ourselves, but I think that’s why it has a great aesthetic quality to it.
Chapman Way: Yeah, sometimes documentaries look so polished, you feel so distant from the characters. We really wanted to create an intimate sense of storytelling where you really felt like you were in a living room with these people and you were really getting to know Kurt and Todd and Jim Bouton and all these characters. That was very important for us as filmmakers.
Since your brother Brocker worked on the score, were you able to bring him into the process earlier than usual? The music achieves a really nice balance of triumph and defiance and really seems woven into the story.
Chapman Way: One of the negatives for documentaries is usually, there’s no budget for the music and they get scored at the very end and you kind of get all these kind of marimba-scored music scores that all kind of sound the same. We wanted very early on to have a very quality-driven score, so we hooked up with Tom Biller, a music producer who has a history of working with some of what we consider the great soundtracks of the last 15 years. He produced and scored and mixed the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the “Where the Wild Things Are” soundtrack with Spike Jonze, “Magnolia” and on and on. So we brought in Tom very early and we had our brother Brocker, who’s a classical musician and a wonderful pianist, early on [for] discussions about how we wanted to score this and what emotions we wanted to get across. One of the plus sides of working with your brothers is you really have time to create a really great marriage between the visuals and the music.
Did that give you the confidence to leave a lot of the game footage simply play without commentary? Most films, there’s usually some kind of voiceover to describe the action, but here it was striking to see it without.
Chapman Way: The championship game sequence was very much an intentional thing we wanted to do from early on in the process. We really wanted to build the story up, then slip in the championship game footage and let it speak for itself. Sometimes with talking heads documentaries, you never feel like you really get a chance to breathe. It’s just constant commentary. But we’re huge fans of archival film and we love the aesthetic of it, so there were instances in the film where we just felt like music and quality of the archival footage — the kind of grainy 16mm and Super 8 footage — could stand on its own and have its own character to it.
Maclain Way: Also, it was a practical decision. When we first started pulling footage, we had about an hour or two of game footage. It was all newsreel footage, so it was all 30-second to a minute highlights of base hits and stolen bases and scored runs. We were happy that we had footage of the Mavericks, but then how do you tell the story when these games weren’t broadcast? They weren’t filmed in their entirety. It was shot on 16mm film that cameramen would just flick on and flick off for each pitch and then that would be edited down to just the highlights. The championship game was the only game that we had. It wasn’t even filmed in its entirety, but we did have 20 minutes of it, which was way more than any other game, so you know this is going to be a great section to let the game play and let the film play. Like Chap said, there’s something so cool about those red uniforms and [it being] the ‘70s and baseball.
It was also interesting to me that Jim Bouton, who has been very supportive of the film and you get to hear from at the end, doesn’t actually appear on camera. Was he a late addition?
Chapman Way: It took about three-and-a-half years to make the film and over the course of it, we shot our interviews in about a six-month period and we had two different times set up to interview Jim, but unfortunately there were some health circumstances that prevented him from being on camera. We were really bummed about that, but we came across this great archival interview of him on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and we let that stand in for his interview. We were also able to meet up with him in New York for about an hour or two and we did the audio interview that you hear in the epilogue section of the film with a letter he had written that he wanted to read on camera.
Maclain Way: Yeah, we recorded it, so we didn’t have an image, but it’s great. One of our other early decisions was we didn’t want to have a narrator. Then Jim came in and he does fulfill that role at the very end, so it ended up working out pretty well, I think.
It really does. The one thing I couldn’t help wondering was whether Bing was so prescient that he called the team the Mavericks, knowing that would be their attitude or if he just liked the name?
Chapman Way: Yeah, Bing was on the television show “Maverick” and his license plate on the car her drove around town with was “Mr. Mav,” so he always liked the name. But I think he went into Portland knowing he wanted this ragtag team that stood out on their own and carved out their own path, so it was very much in the back of Bing’s mind when he was naming his team that he wanted that maverick spirit to come out.
What has it been like to share something personal like this with the world?
Chapman Way: It’s been great. One of the really neat things about this film is it does seem to be a crowdpleaser, so when we’ve been screening at festivals, we get just a ton of laughter and a ton of emotion you can hear and feel with the audience. When you edit something for two years, you don’t find the jokes funny anymore and maybe you don’t find certain things as emotional, so [when] we had a screening at the Full Frame Film Festival for 1200 people, to hear them laughing and getting choked up at the end, it’s a surreal experience as a filmmaker.
Maclain Way: Absolutely and as I said, this is a really small team, so almost no one had seen the documentary [going into Sundance]. When that happened, we were so ecstatic and we hadn’t shown it to distributors. Even my mom and Kurt, they hadn’t seen the film. So it was an experience when we played it for the first time. We’ve kept the film in the can a little bit [since then] and we’re really excited for more people to watch it. One of our main reasons for why we wanted to go through Netflix over another distributor is because it’s going to be immediately available for a lot of people. As a documentary filmmaker, when you make your first film, you really just want people to watch it and hopefully, a lot of people will.