Monthly Must See: 'The Battered Bastards of Baseball' Documentary
by Alex Billington
January 6, 2015
"Our motivation was simple: revenge. We loved womping fuzzy-cheeked college-bonus-babies owned by the Dodgers, or Phillies." We're well into the New Year which means it's time for another Monthly Must See feature highlighting a great film to watch this month (or instead of/while waiting for the Golden Globes on Sunday). It's the perfect time of year for documentaries, so this month's pick is The Battered Bastards of Baseball from directors Chapman Way & Maclain Way, a Netflix documentary that runs a brisk 79 minutes telling the story of the Portland Mavericks, an independent baseball team started in the 1970s. This light-hearted, highly entertaining film is easily available on Netflix for your enjoyment anytime. It's good.
As we continue this series of Monthly Must See films, I'm admittedly quite excited to highlight some of the best undiscovered/hidden gems waiting out there. While there are always old, classic films to watch, there are also some new films that get lost in the mix of releases every year and once in a while I stumble across one of those. The Battered Bastards of Baseball premiered at Sundance 2014 last year, where I first saw it, and was acquired by Netflix for release as an original documentary. It's now available on Netflix for anyone to watch, but it never got a theatrical release. It's still a fun doc, that is actually quite refreshing to watch, and features everyone from Kurt Russell to Todd Field to many of the original Portland Mavericks players.
Why watch this film? What makes it so good?
Yep, that's Kurt Russell. If you need any more reason to watch Battered Bastards of Baseball, that should be it - Kurt Russell guides this documentary because his father, famed actor Bing Russell, was the one who started the Portland Mavericks on his own and coached the team for five years. Kurt tells stories about growing up with his father, and about how the team came together and his experiences of the events in Portland. Beyond that, it's just an incredibly fun doc with such a feel-good attitude, following a rebellious, independent group of ragtag baseball players pre-dating Moneyball. "[If] they felt like they had to do that, then we'll beat them too. They knew they were in for a battle." Watch it for a good story, watch it to laugh.
It's a quick and simple doc that runs barely 79 minutes, and leaves you in a good mood. There are some fun touches that make this stand out, like how they were the only team with a "bat dog", called P.L. Maverick, who can be seen throughout the footage. The score is a bit conventional but enlivens the storytelling, and all-in-all it's worth a quick watch, whether you're a baseball fan or not. One quote that sums up the story:
"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 league franchise."
"Everybody there had been rejected. I personally, my career had ended, and I felt I had been rejected. All of the players had felt they had been rejected. And maybe even Bing felt he had been rejected [by Hollywood]."
The Battered Bastards of Baseball is just great story about a misfit group of "rejects", rejecting the rules of the establishment looming over them, and playing the game they wanted to play their own way. "It was a joke…. and to think that it would work was even more of a joke. A bad joke." The reporters they interview are funny, and despite how serious things got at the time, I think what makes this film work so well is that in looking back we can all be amused and impressed at what they pulled off. Even when we all expect them to lose the legal battle, instead it's exciting to see them triumph. If only this kind of stuff was still happening.
"There's never going to be another Portland Mavericks." It's cool to see such a unique, one-of-a-kind story presented so well and best of all, there's a good message and heartwarming feel behind it all. I wrote in my notes that it's just a warm and fuzzy documentary made with people who just want to tell a great story. Not only the story of the Portland Mavericks, but the story of Bing Russell, and the story of Big League Chew, and the players, and the town that supported them. Kurt at the end: "He deserved the outcome. [If they're going to take it at least they'll pay for it and] in so doing gave others the opportunity to do what he'd done: create a baseball team that was independent, giving guys the opportunity to prove they could still play…"
What are other critics saying about it?
Film critic Scott Foundas gave the documentary a glowing review in Variety: "They say you can’t fight City Hall, but surely going mano-a-mano with Major League Baseball is none the wiser. Yet that’s exactly what a charismatic entrepreneur named Bing Russell did in the 1970s, when he started a fully independent single-A ball club in Portland, Ore., that started out as a laughingstock and ended up as a righteous bee in MLB’s bonnet. This stirring, little-remembered episode of baseball history has been lovingly brought to the screen by co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way in The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a fast-paced valentine to Russell and his quixotic vision so rife with underdog victors and hairpin twists of fortune that, if it weren’t all true, no one would believe it."
This great comparison from Edward Havens in his review on FilmJerk.com: "Do you remember Slap Shot, the 1977 Paul Newman film about a small town hockey team? Of course you do. It’s become a beloved film to millions, many of whom couldn’t tell you the first thing about the sport of hockey. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is to baseball what Slap Shot was to hockey, and not just because they both happen to take place in the same era and tell similar stories about small-time sports in a smaller metropolitan town. They’re both about what a little guy can get done with little resources when he truly believes in what he is doing. Bing Russell might not have been as successful as Reggie Dunlop, but the two men always tried to do the right thing for the right reasons, not always successfully."
Friend-of-the-site and blogger Germain Lussier wrote in his Sundance review last year for SlashFilm: "The pleasure of a good documentary is learning about things you previously knew nothing about. For that reason, I won’t spoil too much of the plot and reality behind The Battered Bastards of Baseball. What I will say is I’ve been a baseball fan for almost 30 years and had never heard about the Portland Mavericks, the team Bing Russell created in 1973. They were a bit like a real-life Bad News Bears and helped revitalize a market that Major League Baseball all but ignored."
Another rave from Duane Byrge in his Hollywood Reporter review: "The Battered Bastards of Baseball is not just about baseball. It transcends the game and is a charming anti-establishment yarn that should delight audiences who don’t even know an RBI from a balk. Co-directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way have hit a crowd-pleasing homer with this inspiring, underdog story. After its festival runs, Battered Bastards would be a hit on ESPN. […] Throughout, Kurt Russell’s onscreen recollections of his father and the wild-and-fun days of the Mavericks are a winning highlight. Told with a bright twinkle in his eyes and doled out with humorous candor, Russell reveals the respect and admiration he had for his father."
From "planktonrules" in an IMDb review: "This film is a very compelling documentary about the little guy tweaking the nose of baseball and getting away with it…kind of. It's about Bing Russell (father of Kurt Russell) and his ownership of the minor league ball club, the Portland Mavericks. But, unlike most other teams, his team was not affiliated with a major league team but was an independent that scraped together players rejected by other teams. And, what shocked the league was that the team was SUPER-successful and set attendance records…and won a lot of games. But, this rag-tag group of castoffs also irritated the powers that be because they had attitude and didn't play the game exactly like the rest. What's next? See the film."
What should viewers look for to discuss about it?
Aside from being an entertaining documentary, it's a good story about the underdogs – or the rejected as they're referred to at one point in the film – getting a chance to redeem themselves again, go back and prove themselves, and it's refreshing to see that rise from nothing to something. Then, at the end, when it gets dirty, things actually turn out okay for once and it's a relief. I think this is one of the reasons that Chapman Way & Maclain Way made this doc, to show that it's possible to still be the little, independent guy hanging on as the last one while showing the big guys that it's possible to be successful and have fun at the same time. Even if they don't like it, at least it was worth doing just to show them someone can get away with it.
It's a strong message in an otherwise quite amusing film about baseball. And I hope watching it makes you smile and laugh and think about life all the same, something only a truly great documentary is capable of.
Monthly Must See: We follow up with this discussion next month and highlight another great underseen film to watch. Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoy The Battered Bastards of Baseball. It's a gem.
From Last Time: We hope you did your homework, movie fans! Following up our last Monthly Must See for Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play in Hell?, so what did you think? How crazy was that? Your favorite moment? Was it too violent or did it work well enough? Tell us your thoughts on each film in the comments.