The Battered Bastards of Baseball
If you are a fan of independent professional baseball, or even if you just live in a town that has an independent team, this is a must see. The ‘Battered Bastards’ are the 1973-1977 Portland Mavericks. They were at the time the only independent professional baseball team in the United States. They played in a Class A affiliated league, the Northwest League.
You would think that with its vast scouting network and multiple team minor league system that all of the best ballplayers in America get signed into the MLB ;system. But as fans of the Somerset Patriots, the Long Island Ducks, the St. Paul Saints and others know to this day, there’s plenty of good players that have fallen out of that organization or never got into it. Usually because at some point they were deemed too old or too small or too flaky.
The Portland Mavericks were proof of that. As they were putting the team together I was reminded of Major League. They had a left-handed catcher, a manager who would later end up in jail and a star player who disappeared but some suspect was in the witness protection program. A 24-year-old woman served as general manager. One player went on to invent Big League Chew and another became an Academy Award nominated filmmaker. And they had Jim Bouton, the former New York Yankees star pitcher who was blackballed by Major League Baseball because of his book Ball Four.
The team was the brainchild of Bing Russell, a former actor whose most notable role was on the supporting cast of Bonanza. He is the father of Kurt Russell who narrates a good part of the story. One especially excellent segment is when the filmmakers show a Northwest League championship game with no narration, just telling the story with the original footage.
MLB doesn’t come off looking very good. The Mavericks had replaced a failed Triple-A Portland team that faded and eventually moved out. The Mavs set minor league attendance records. But having revived the Portland market for baseball they were bullied out by organized baseball who placed another triple-A team there. One that also failed. And as for the championship game…the Mavericks lost to an affiliated team who dropped players down from a higher level to make sure the outlaws didn’t win.
There are now four or five independent leagues and several dozen teams. At a time when MLB is considering a controversial plan to reduce the number of minor league teams, this documentary makes you feel like maybe there’ll be another Portland Mavericks in the future.
(available on Netflix)
As baseball came to a complete halt in March, the main topic of discussion was cheating. As in the sign-stealing the Houston Astros, and very possibly the Boston Red Sox, were involved in. Already it had taken down the GM and manager of the Astros and the managers of the Red Sox and Mets, both former Astros. So it seems entirely appropriate to watch a documentary about the previous generation of cheaters in baseball.
Screwball has nothing to do with the pitch. The lead man in this story is Tony Bosch, a Cuban-American kid in South Florida who wanted to be a baseball player. He wasn’t good enough so he then sought to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a doctor. Best he could do for that was a medical school in Belize from which he got a degree that never allowed him to be licensed in the U.S. He eventually went into the anti-aging business, starting a firm called Biogenesis. Fast forward a bit and he’s the PED supplier to Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and countless others.
There are lots of pretty shocking parts to this story, such as:
Parents would bring their high school athlete kids to Bosch.
Alex Rodriguez supposedly was the one who ratted out Braun, as well as his teammate Fransisco Cervelli, because he thought the more players who were involved, the less he’d be singled out. (Remember A-Rod is the highest paid player in baseball and at the time Cerveli was probably around the minimum wage, substantial though that may seem to us.)
But the real shocker comes with Major League Baseball’s investigation after a local Miami paper broke the story. MLB paid $100,000+ to a crook who stole documents out of a witness’s car. They paid Bosch, possibly in seven figures, for his cooperation. Meanwhile Rodriguez’ ‘people’ were working to pay some of the same folks to not cooperate. The guy responsible for this investigation… Rob Manfred, who is now commissioner of baseball. Wonder how the investigation of the sign-stealers is going?
One really odd thing about this documentary is that the director uses what appears to be 12-13 year olds to reenact some of the scenes between these characters, including Bosch and Rodriguez. I understand that real footage might have been scarce, you’re unlikely to get a video of Bosch shooting up Rodriguez in the bathroom of a club, but the middle school style reenactments? Maybe that’s the reason for the title Screwball.
(available on Netflix)
No No: A Documentary
Dock Ellis was the ace pitcher for a Pittsburgh Pirates team that included Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. He started an all-star game. He pitched in the World Series. He was the pitcher in a 1971 game when the Pirates started nine black players, a first for Major League Baseball.
So why is this movie called No No? Because of the no-hitter Ellis pitched in 1971. A sloppy no-hitter that included a pile of walks and hit batsman, but a no-hitter nonetheless. A no-hitter that he pitched while on LSD. “My teammates knew I was high but they didn’t know on what,” Ellis said. He added that he couldn’t even see the batters he just knew there was someone on the right side or the left. He said he never pitched a game in the major leagues when he wasn’t on drugs. Sometimes he took 14 or 15 pills before a start. He did it to calm his fear of failure.
Dock Ellis was a proud, militant black man who had no problems expressing that. If Jackie Robinson belonged to the civil rights movement, Dock Ellis belonged to the Black Power movement. He wanted to be the Muhammed Alli of baseball. He was also one crazy dude. Probably the first major league player to wear an earring. Once he came to the mound with curlers in his hair. (He got suspended.) He started a game against the hated Cincinnati Reds and drilled the first three batters before being taken out of the game.
Ellis did make a comeback after retiring from baseball. He sobered up, went back to school and became a substance abuse counselor. He worked with ballplayers, convicts, students and seemingly was pretty good at it.
There’s a lot of serious stuff here, but this is also a fun movie. Much of the story is told in interviews with Ellis mimself. We also hear from numerous teammates including Al Oliver, Dave Cash, Manny Sanguillen and Steve Blass. One of them notes that when they had to play a day game there wasn’t a guy on the team who wasn’t hung over. Another commented that if you played for the Pirates at the time and got traded to another team, you were going to find that team boring.
Dock Ellis was a guy who refused to fit the mold that MLB wants their players to drop into. None of his teammates seem to regret having had him on the team.
(available on Amazon Prime)
A one-hour documentary that was part of a PBS series called American Masters. As most baseball fans probably know Ted Williams was an immeasurably great baseball player and an immeasurably difficult personality. He had a long career that was twice interrupted, not entirely voluntarily, by stints as a Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War. He was an all-star, a triple crown winner, an MVP, a Hall of Famer.
He also hated sportswriters. Because of the occasional criticism or booing of some fans he refused to tip his cap to the fans, a baseball standard for home run hitters, throughout his career. He was foul mouthed and hot headed. He wasn’t very good at marriage, which he tried three times, and was likewise lacking as a father.
The Ted Williams story is anything but heartwarming. But there are a couple stories here that show a different side to his character. In 1941, the year that he hit .400 (hasn’t been done since), he went into the last day of the season hitting exactly .400 and his manager offered to have his sit out the final day’s doubleheader to preserve that distinguished mark. He refused, played both games, went 6 for 8, and raised his average to .406. Another positive piece of biography involved his acceptance speech at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Despite being asked not to, he mentioned how great Negro League players like Josh Gibson and Sachel Paige belonged in the hall even though the major leagues never game them the chance. Williams was Mexican-American, though he seemed to go to great lengths to bury his heritage.
There is a lot of great footage here and not just of Williams’ exploits on the diamond. There is an interview with Williams by Bob Costas, extensive comments by his daughter, and a number of other major leaguers who offer up their views, including Willie McCovey, Jim Kaat, Wade Boggs and a particularly effusive Joey Votto.
Ultimately there’s just so much about Ted Williams that makes you scratch your head. Not the least of which is the fact that after his death his body was frozen or freeze dried or some such thing. I’m no more clear on that after watching this documentary.
(available to subscribers on the PBS app or to buy or rent on Apple TV or Amazon Prime)
Of course the mother of all baseball documentaries is the 9-part, 18 or so hour Ken Burns Baseball. It was available for streaming at the PBS app once the baseball world went into shutdown. Like all of Burns’ documentaries it has amazing footage, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Sachel Page, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and pretty much all of the greatest stars of the game.
One of the greatest strengths of the film is telling the story of blacks in baseball. The Negro Leagues and their stars are not only covered but in fact treated pretty much as equals. There’s mention of Fleet Walker, a 19th century catcher, who was really the first black major league ballplayer and it devotes a lot of time to baseball’s greatest story, Jackie Robinson. We hear from Curt Flood, whose career ended when he chose to take on the reserve clause, and Burns is there to remind us all along the way of how blacks are under-represented at management level both in the dugout and front office. He also is quick to expose baseball’s racists ranging from Cap Anson to Kennesaw Mountain Landis to Enos Country Slaughter.
I do think he misses the mark in not telling the story of the emergence of Latin ballplayers. Who was the first Latin player? The first to come from Cuba? What did Tony Oliva of the Twins mean to aspiring Cuban players and what did the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela mean to Mexican-American fans. The documentary is more than 25 years old and ends with the 1980’s, yet even then I think you could see how important the influx of Latin players would be to the game.
The film was a little heavy on literary types philosophizing on the larger meaning of the game. Takes the fun out of it. But I surely enjoyed hearing from Mario Cuomo about his short-lived baseball career and there are great interviews with Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Curt Flood.
Despite these disappointments, this is baseball history 101, the unabridged version. I consider taking the time to watch it one of the few benefits of sheltering in place for so long.
(available at no charge on the PBS app while the baseball season is locked out by the coronavirus)