When the Portland Beavers left Portland for Spokane at the end of the 1972 season, ex minor leaguer and tv actor Bing Russell, father of Kurt Russell, jumped in with an independent team. This was not a coincidence. Russell starred for years in the TV series Bonanza, which was cancelled in 1972. The team joined the Northwest League (A short season) as an independent team. In June, before the start of the A short season, the team held tryouts that drew the attention of former Major Leaguers and wannabe players from all over the country. Instead of a regular 25-man roster, which is common in the minor leagues, the team had a 30-man roster. The tryout was something rare as well in minor league baseball. Affiliated teams get players who are appointed by the parent club.
When Russell announced that he wanted to start a A short season team in Portland, the fans weren’t exactly enthousiastic. They were used to a AAA team, though in the end the team never drew more than a handful of spectators.
During the very first tryout Russell and his staff expected about 50 men to show up. They were very surprised that 300 guys wanted to try their luck. Men of all sorts: teachers, painters and released major leaguers.
Where affiliated teams looked the same (clothing and even haircuts), the Mavericks’ player s were a bunch of rowdies. Long hair, long beards, mustaches and not always the sporty type of guys.
Bing Russell knew exactly how to draw fans: with show and entertainment. But he also knew to get attention by having a lot of firsts in baseball: the first Asian-American manager, the first female GM, the first girl as a batgirl. Shows put up by players drove the crowds wild. Jo Garza for example, climbed up the dugouts with a broom if the team was about to sweep the opponent in a series. The fans identified with this, bringing their own brooms to the stadium. Which team would run a victory lap after every win? The Mavericks did.
The Mavs running a victory lap
It was a regular sight that players who sat in the dugout during the game entered the stands to sit next to the fans. The city of Portland loved it. The team had a sellout crowd several times. Eventually the team set a minor league record for Short A, with 125,300 fans passing the turnstiles.
The Norhwest League wasn’t too happy with the team. The bunch of vagabonds beat the shit out of the affiliated teams. Nevertheless Bing Russell was named the executive of the year at single A.
In 1975 the Mavericks caught national attention when Joe Garagiola made a show about the team. Even national magazines like Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker spent an article to the club.
Bing Russell with some of his team members
Jim Bouton was a part of the reason for all the attention that the club got. Bouton retired in 1970 from Major League Baseball. He was a persona non grata after he published his book Ball Four, about the year that he spent with the Seattle Pilots. No MLB team wanted to hire him. But in 1975 he joined the Mavericks in an attempt for a comeback. Bouton carried the team that season, winning five games and losing one. After a couple of stints with MLB clubs and their minor league affiliates, Bouton came back to Portland in 1977.
Besides the show and the follies, the Mavericks put up a very competitive team in their years of existence. In all of the seasons the Mavericks reached the play offs. In four of their five seasons the won their division and in one they finished in second place. In 1977 the Mavericks won their division (the Independent Division, since more independent teams had joined the Northern League). The Mavericks reached the championship series again. This time they faced the Bellingham Mariners. The Mariners won the first game at their home field in front of 575 fans. When the series went to Portland 4774 fans saw the Mavericks force a decisive third game. That third game drew 7,805 fans. Eventually the Mariners won the game 4-2 thanks to a few questionable calls. After all minor league baseball didn’t like Bing Russell, who refused to adapt to the rules of organized ball. The big league teams even sent down players from higher levels near the end of the season to make sure the Mavericks would lose.
After the 1977 season, rumours reared up about a possible return of a Pacific Coast League affiliation to Portland. The league announced in January 1978 that it would place a team in Portland. But they didn’t count on Russell to fight back. A normal buy out would cost the league about $25,000. But Bing Russell claimed that he had revived a dying market and the the value of his team was way above $25,000. Eventually Russell went to court, where he asked for an amount of $206,000. The PCL thought that this amount was ridiculous. They were rather confident that they would win this case. In the past, buy outs costed the new team $25,000 at most. How flabbergasted they must have been when the judge decided that a reasonable amount to buy out the Mavericks was the requested $206,000, the largest amount that was ever paid for a buy out of a minor league team.
The new Portland Beavers team drew 96,395 fans in 69 home games; an average of 1,400 per game. In a lot more games, the Beavers couldn’t match the attendance what the Mavericks only needed 33 home games for. The affiliated Beavers lasted fifteen years before moving to Salt Lake City.
In the early years of baseball there were hundreds independent teams. By the time the Mavericks started business there was no independent team left. The Mavericks were the inspiration of many other independent teams. Nowadays there are several independent leagues that have teams near the MLB clubs or near their affiliates, since they are independent, they don’t have to apply MLB’s and MiLB’s rules.
The Portland Mavericks are immortalized in the Netflix original documentary “Battered Bastards of Baseball”. It is absolutely worth watching.