The Hustling Russells

Rarely has a team name been more fitting (via Fashion+Lifestyle).

Rarely has a team name been more fitting (via Fashion+Lifestyle).

Father-son duos in major league ball are not so unusual. Some that come to mind are Gus Bell and Buddy Bell, Cecil Fielder and Prince Fielder, Tom Grieve and Ben Grieve, Bobby Bonds and Barry Bonds, the two Dick Schofields, and Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. One could come up with plenty of others.

Minor league father-son duos who never made it to the Show are much less heralded, but given the greater number of minor league teams, one can safely assume that there have been more minor league duos than major league pairs. Yet I suspect even the most knowledgeable seamhead would be hard-pressed to name a minor league-only father-son combo.

There is at least one such duo worthy of your attention. The two men did not distinguish themselves in the record books, and their playing careers were cut short by injury, but their non-playing careers were high-profile.

First of all, the father, Neil Oliver “Bing” Russell, was born in 1926 in Brattleboro, Vt. and grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla. when the Yankees held spring training there. While hanging around Crescent Lake Field (still there but n/k/a Huggins-Stengel Field), he managed to make a good impression on the players (Lefty Gomez in particular), who kept him around as a sort of mascot/errand boy. Since he was home-schooled, he could work for the team without any worries about truant officers. One of his most important duties was smuggling food into the Yankee dugout when manager Joe McCarthy wasn’t looking.

One can readily understand why a youngster so situated would be impressed by the perks of being a pro ballplayer. So he attempted to become one. No surprise that he signed with the Yankees.

After attending Dartmouth, Russell played two seasons (1948-1949) with the Carrollton franchise of the Class D Georgia-Alabama League. If you’re thinking this is about as minor as the minors get, you would be right. Unless you reside in Georgia or Alabama, you would probably have to resort to a map or an atlas to figure out which state was home for the Alexander City Millers, the Carrollton Hornets, the Griffin Pimientos, the LaGrange Troupers, the Newnan Brownies, the Opelika Owls, the Tallassee Indians and the Valley Rebels. (For the record, Newnan, Griffin and LaGrange are in Georgia; the others are in Alabama.) Granted, it may sound like some league dreamed up by W.P. Kinsella, but it was no figment of his or anyone else’s imagination.

Carrollton, the county seat of Pickens County, was in west central Alabama and today has a population of more or less 1,000. One can easily imagine Russell enduring the long, hot summers, the locals shooting the breeze around the courthouse, and returning World War II veterans wondering what to do with their lives. Then there are the ballplayers – bush leaguers and outsiders – with nothing to do away from the ballpark and with very little money to do it with. It would seem to have all the ingredients of a Southern Gothic tale. Flannery O’Connor, thou shouldst be alive at this hour.

Russell hit .255 in 1948, which will not turn many heads at any level of professional ball, much less the lowest minor league classification. The next season he hit but .182 (6 for 33) before an injury ended his career – with a lifetime batting average of .247. But that was just Act One in Russell’s life.

Act Two featured Russell as an actor. In fact, his first credit was a good omen. If you’re starting all over again, you can’t do much better than portraying Lazarus in a 1951 TV series about the life of Christ.

Russell’s baseball experience likely helped him land his next part in a 1953 film called The Big Leaguer, with Edward G. Robinson as Hans Lobert (and Carl Hubbell and Al Campanis, among others, as themselves). Another distinctive aspect worth keeping in mind, just in case the film ever shows up on Turner Classic Movies, is that it was the first film directed by Robert Aldrich.

Russell must have forged a modest relationship with that famed director, as he also appeared in Aldrich’s cult classic Kiss Me Deadly and Attack over the next two years. Russell also appeared in Fear Strikes Out, a Jimmy Piersall biopic. His last movie credit was for Dick Tracy in 1990.

For the most part, Russell earned his keep in westerns, both on the big screen and the small screen. Since the late 1950s and early 1960s were boom years for TV westerns, he worked steadily. Name any western series on TV in those days and he was probably in it at least once. Bonanza provided him with most of his paychecks, as he had the recurring role of Deputy Clem Foster for 10 seasons. As for big screen westerns, he could be found in classics (The Magnificent Seven) or drive-in curiosities (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula).

For most people, steady work in Hollywood would be satisfying enough, but Russell never really got baseball out of his system. So that takes us to Act Three, where he really made his mark in the baseball world – not in Hollywood but in Portland, Ore.

The Portland Beavers had a long history in the Rose City, starting in 1903, mostly as a Pacific Coast League franchise. In fact, the team was born with the league in 1903. The franchise’s longest consecutive tenure with the PCL was from 1919 through 1972, when poor attendance prompted a move to Spokane.

The void did not last long. In fact, a new team was already in place for the 1973 season, but it played in the short season Single-A Northwest League. It was a big drop in class from Triple-A ball, but there was more to the story than that.

The new franchise was not affiliated with any major league team – hence the name Portland Mavericks. As an independent team, it was not at the beck and call of a major league franchise. The Mavericks were not there to develop players for a parent team. They were Bing Russell’s baby. He controlled the roster. He could play to win, play for fun, or both – and he was obviously an admirer of Bill Veeck. Running a short-season team was a good gig for an actor, as the lengthy offseason allowed him plenty of time for movie and TV roles.

The Mavericks were a success both on and off the field. Fans turned out in droves and the team won four division titles in five years. The Mavericks never advanced to a league championship, but there were extenuating circumstances. During the postseason, the teams they played demoted their best players from higher classifications to help their Single-A team win the championship.

This sort of thing isn’t entirely unheard of in minor league ball, but winning minor league titles usually isn’t high on the agenda of major league teams. In this case, however, the Mavericks were a little too independent, and a championship would have embarrassed the league. The regular season results were embarrassing enough, as the Mavericks went 43-35 in 1973, 50-34 in 1974, 42-35 in 1975, 40-32 in 1976, and 44-22, their best record in their final year, 1977.

Obviously, the Mavericks couldn’t provide room for everyone, but Russell did maintain a 30-man roster, and he would provide a tryout for anyone who wanted one.

Word spread quickly and the Mavericks attracted players who matched the team’s nickname, most notably Jim Bouton, who characterized Bing Russell’s team as “the dirty dozen of baseball.” (An apt reference: The Dirty Dozen was Robert Aldrich’s most profitable movie, even though Bing Russell wasn’t involved in that one.) Bouton played for the Mavericks in 1975 (4-1, 2.20 ERA, 41 innings pitched) and 1977 (5-1, 4.50 ERA, 58 innings). “I’m embarrassed to say I enjoyed every tasteless minute of it,” he admitted in his updated edition of Ball Four. Obviously, it was more than a lark; Bouton was back in the big leagues (with the Braves) at age 39 after an eight-year hiatus.

Minor leagues tend to be a bit less uptight than the majors, but the Mavericks took minor league hijinks to new heights. On road trips, the team bus would cruise the town and insult people, motivating them to come out to the ballpark to exhort the Mudville nine to give the Mavericks their comeuppance. When an opposing pitcher was knocked out, the team would serenade him with a rendition of Happy Trails to You. This sort of thing is not unheard of, but it’s usually the province of the P.A. or scoreboard operator, not the players.

That 30-man roster allowed for a bit of nepotism. So Russell, in 1973, saved a roster spot for his son. Having been a movie and TV actor since the late 1950s, Kurt Russell was no stranger to many Mavericks fans. In fact, he was no stranger to the Northwest League. After he signed with the Angels in 1971, they assigned him to their Northwest League team in Bend, Ore. As a switch-hitting second baseman, he hit .285 for the Bend Rainbows. The next year he hit .325 for the Walla Walla Islanders in the same league (the landlocked franchise was so-called because it was affiliated with the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League). One of his teammates that year was Tom Trebelhorn, who made it to the majors as a manager but not as a player.

In 1973 Russell got off to a flying start (.563 average based on 9 for 16) for the Double-A El Paso Sun Kings before a collision at second base resulted in a rotator cuff injury that derailed his season and eventually his career – like father, like son. When he returned to action that season, he hit a mere .229 at Portland. And that was the end of Kurt Russell’s baseball career, save for a brief (one at-bat) encore for the Mavericks in 1977.

In retrospect, it’s interesting to speculate on what might have been had Russell continued to advance through the minors to the Angels. From spring training to postseason, the major league season can take up eight and a half months, leaving very little time for movie roles. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Russell as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, but it could have come to that.

Most 23-year-old players would have gone back to school, taken a job in the family business, gotten into coaching, or sought out some sort of training program. Russell just went back to being a full-time actor. One can imagine his having a heart-to-heart with his dad, who might have advised, “Son, if this baseball thing doesn’t work out for you, you can always go back to being a movie star.” Not a bad fallback position.

Like his father, Kurt Russell appeared in westerns, westerns and more westerns. He started as a child actor with TV westerns in the late 1950s and further established himself with the title role in The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, which ran for one season from 1963 to 1964. After that, there were more guest spots on TV shows as well as a 10-year contract with Walt Disney, where he played in such family fare as Follow Me, Boys!; The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band; The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit; The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes; The Barefoot Executive; and Now You See Him, Now You Don’t.

Now it is not unusual for an established ballplayer to do a turn in a movie or TV show. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Bob Uecker and many others have appeared on the silver screen, and a number of others logged some time on TV shows. None of the above would ever be in danger of garnering any acting awards (indeed, for the most part, the aforementioned played themselves!). Working steadily at playing someone other than oneself (or someone other than a ballplayer) is reserved for an elite few, such as Johnny Berardino, who is the only man in history with a World Series ring (Indians, 1948) and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

It is far more unusual for a working actor to take a flyer on a pro baseball career, but such was the case of Kurt Russell, born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1951. While he was getting juvenile parts on TV shows, he was honing his baseball skills with the Thousand Oaks (Calif.) Little League.

In retrospect, it is surprising that Russell has never appeared in any baseball movies. He has made two football movies, The Best of Times (1986) and Touchback (2012), and Miracle (2004) in which he made a big impression as Coach Herb Brooks of the U.S. hockey team that won the gold medal at the 1980 winter Olympics.

Russell almost got one baseball movie credit, however. In 1988, he was set for the role of Crash Davis in Bull Durham (written and directed by Ron Shelton, a former minor leaguer himself) but Orion Pictures preferred Kevin Costner. So Costner embarked on what turned out to be the first leg of his baseball trilogy movies, the others being Field of Dreams (1989) and For Love of the Game (1999).

Russell was likely disappointed by that casting change, but “what if” is an intriguing phrase in Hollywood. Russell was also up for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars. Considering his swaggering bravado in Big Trouble in Little China and Escape From New York, it is not too difficult to envision him behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon.

Despite these disappointments, Russell’s Hollywood career outpaced his father’s. As ballplayers, they had similar careers, but in Hollywood Kurt was a leading man while Bing remained a supporting actor – albeit a steadily employed one.

The Russell legacy did not end when the Portland Mavericks disbanded after the 1977 season (the PCL wanted back into the market and an expansion team was placed there). Bing’s grandson (hence Kurt’s nephew), Matt Franco, did make it to the major leagues as a utility player for the Cubs, Mets and Braves from 1995 to 2003, after which he spent three seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan.

Franco was in the news last year when a family heirloom, the bat used by Lou Gehrig for his last two home runs during a 1939 exhibition game against the Dodgers in Norfolk, Va., was put up for auction. Gehrig had handed the bat to Bing Russell after hitting the second home run.

After Bing Russell’s death in 2003, the bat remained in the family’s possession. Curiously, Norfolk had played a more recent part in Bing Russell’s baseball odyssey when he returned to the city in the late 1990s to watch grandson Matt during his sojourns with the Norfolk Tides, then the Mets Triple-A affiliate.

Even posthumously, the Bing Russell legacy continues to evolve, most recently with the release of a documentary about the Portland Mavericks. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (a takeoff on the Battling Bastards of Bastogne, the 101st Airborne Division that achieved renown during the Battle of the Bulge) was produced by Bing Russell’s grandsons, Chapman and Maclain Way (hence Kurt Russell’s nephews and Matt Franco’s cousins) and premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival.

And that might not be the end of the line. Actor/director Todd Field wants to make a feature film about the Mavericks. (In the 1999 Stanley Kubrick movie Eyes Wide Shut, Todd Field played the piano player conversing with Tom Cruise.) Field’s credentials are impeccable. Not only has he directed two Oscar-nominated movies (In the Bedroom in 2001 and Little Children in 2006), he also served as the Mavericks’ batboy.

So the saga of the Russell clan remains a work in progress. And to think it all started roughly eight decades ago with a baseball-crazed boy in St. Petersburg, a city known more for seniors than youngsters.

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Comments

  1. jim S. said...

    According to the wikipedia entry on the Class D Georgia-Alabama league, the Carrollton entry was from Georgia, not the much smaller city in Alabama. I’m not sure how you missed this.

  2. Jack Johnson said...

    Great article, good sir — excellent research, well-constructed and really interesting. Thanks!

  3. said...

    Great article about the team; I just watched the documentary on the Mavericks. Unfortunately, the city of Portland is still without any level of baseball (not counting the Hops in Hillsboro), but perhaps we can see replica Portland Mavericks baseball caps, blood red jerseys and t-shirts soon?

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