The Portland Mavericks are a unique and strangely individual team. They were an independent team that belonged to no one. Their roster contained a former major league star and baseball hopefuls that might never had received a chance otherwise. They were proud of their reputation as a bunch of nobodies. Yet, they were immortalized in the independent (naturally) baseball film, “The Dirty Ol’ Bastards of Baseball”. And, to remember the team that cannot be forgotten, the Hillsboro Hops will wear their ‘Portland Maverick’ uniforms again this year.
So, who are the Portland Mavericks?
The Portland Mavericks played in Portland’s Civic Stadium from 1973-77 and it all started with their owner, a former minor league player. Bing Russell played for the Carrollton Hornets of the Georgia-Alabama League in 1948 and 1949 at the age of 22 and 23. He went 73 for 296 and a .247 career batting average. But, that is not what he is most known for.
After his baseball career, Bing became an actor. His most well-known role is probably as deputy Clem Foster in 53 episodes of Bonanza. Bing specialized in western and war roles, appearing in film and television. His first appearance was in the movie, The Cavalry Patrol. His last appearance was in the classic Warren Beatty movie, Dick Tracy, as one of the club patrons. In between, he appeared in The Loretta Young Show, Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Route 66, Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, The Andy Griffith Show, two episodes of the Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, the Monkees TV pilot, I Dream of Genie and Gunsmoke among many more.
He also appeared in Tango & Cash, Sunset (one of my favorites), Overboard, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Hallelujah Trail (another favorite), Rio Bravo (John Wayne) and the classic: The Magnificent Seven among many others. But, that is not what he is most known for… in Hollywood.
Bing Brings Baseball
Louise and Bing Russell had a son who followed in his father’s footsteps. Kurt Russell starred in many Disney movies, including The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes which also cast Bing. Later, the two would star together in the TV movie ‘Elvis”. Bing played Vernon Presley while Kurt played his son, the iconic Elvis Presley. But, that is not what Bing is most known for… in Portland and surrounding areas.
Bing Russell is best remembered as the man who brought the Portland Mavericks to Portland. A team largely unknown to the rest of the country. It would give Bing a chance to shine in his own spotlight and mold the independent team in his own image. In his own spirit, Bing wanted to give these “nobodies” a chance to be somebody. Each June, he would host open tryouts to anyone who showed up. He gave chances to many who never had a chance anywhere else. One of the most well-known was Jim Bouton.
In 1964, Jim Bouton was part of the starting pitching staff for the New York Yankees. He started one game in the 1963 World Series which he lost. In 1964, Jim won two World Series games but the Yankees lost 4-3 to the St. Louis Cardinals and the Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson. By, 1975 and 1977, Jim Bouton found himself pitching from the mound of a single A team, the Portland Mavericks.
In 1969, Bouton was selected in the expansion draft of the Seattle Pilots. While trying to survive the season, Jim decided to write a book that was first encouraged by his mother. That book became the historical look behind the scenes called Ball Four. While the critics and fans read it from cover to cover, his fellow players wanted the book burned. The book was named to the New York Public Library’s list for Books of the Century. It revealed a private look behind the scenes the players did not want revealed. Later that season, Jim was traded to the Houston Astros and was out of major league baseball the next season. When the Portland Mavericks came along, Jim saw it as a chance to make it back to where he once stood. Owner Bing Russel wanted to give him that chance.
The most well-known of all the players was probably Bing’s son Kurt Russell. By the time Kurt had donned the Portland Maverick uniform, Kurt had already appeared in over 60 guest spots on TV and over a dozen movies. Kurt played his first pro game two years before he donned the Maverick uniform.
In 1971, Kurt played for the single A NWL Bend Rainbows notching a .285 batting average and playing second base. The following year, 1972, Kurt played for the Walla Walla Islanders, another single A team in the NW League. There, he batted .325 for the team affiliated with the AAA Hawaii Islanders. It was his third season when he finally got the chance to play for his dad. Acting was a job to Kurt. Baseball was his dream.
Another success story was Rob Nelson who developed Big League Chew while waiting in the bullpen. Many came and went including future actors and former players. One tryout hopeful was a fellow classmate of mine. He didn’t get past the tryout. For a short time in the sun, it was his only taste of pro ball.
Their first season in 1973 led them to second place in Southern Division Championship. The same division in which the current Hillsboro Hops play . Led by manager Hank Robinson, their record of 45-35 would signal the arrival of more to come. But, an even louder signal came late in the season when Hank Robinson was suspended for a year after punching out an umpire.
1974 was a bit more benign. The Portland Mavericks now played in the new West Division, finishing with a better record of 50-34 under new manager Frank Peters. But, they finished two games behind the Bellingham Dodgers and missed the playoffs.
Frank was a holdover as a former Portland Beaver. When the Beavers left, the Mavericks filled the vacuum. He was a fan favorite as a player and even owned his own restaurant that was popular with more than just baseball fans. But, he was also reminded people of the lack of support that sent the Beavers out of town. The question hung in the background: would the popular Frank Peters help draw the fans and draw the support he never had as a Beaver?
Frank Peters returned in 1975 and the Mavericks fell to a 42-35 record in the new North Division. But, they took first place again. They met the Eugene Emeralds in the playoffs, something all Hops fans would be familiar with. Eugene would go on to win the league championship.
The Portland Mavericks returned to the South Division in 1976 and won their division for the second year in a row. Jack Spring was now in command of the team. The Portland Mavericks would lose to the Walla Walla Padres. Bing Russell had to step in on an interim basis when their new manager received a fractured skull.
The Final Season
Their final season, 1977 was not only their best, but also its downfall. The franchise that struggled for respect was finally winning over their fans. But, who knew success would be their greatest enemy?
The season brought them another division championship for the third year in a row. Player/manager Steve Collette led the team to a 44-22 record, ending with a 22-game lead over second place. Even more astonishing, the Portland Mavericks did this in front of over 125,000 fans, a new record for a short season A team in the history of baseball. The Portland Mavericks went from obscurity to “Everyone loves the Mavericks”.
The first game took place in Bellingham in front of only 575 attendees. It was a number dwarfed by the new crowds back home. Down 1-0 to Bellingham, in front of the home crowd, the Portland Mavericks took game two in front of a crowd of 4770 fans cheering their team onward. The third game would be a winner take all. Over 7800 fans showed up to see their hometown Portland Mavericks win their first championship. Only, it wasn’t to be that year. Portland lost to Bellingham in a close game. But, Portland would lose more than the championship. Portland would also lose their Mavericks.
Portland’s biggest fan turned out to be Major League Baseball. The historic success of the team nobody wanted got noticed by the big boys. And, what they saw was very desirable. Seeing that the region could support baseball, the MLB wanted the territory back. They wanted to re-create the Portland Beavers as an expansion team and move them in as a AAA team. It was time for Portland to be big again and the MLB wanted to cash in.
Only one problem: Bing Russell still owned the territory and didn’t want to sell. It took arbitration to finally settle the matter. MLB would get their territory back and Bing would get $206, 000. The popularity that MLB coveted, gave the territory the largest price tag for a minor league territory at that time.
Bing may have had the final say but he would also get the last laugh. After Bing’s Mavericks drew 125,000 fans in just 36 games in 1977, the new AAA Portland Beavers would draw only 96,000 in 69 games for 1978. Almost 30,000 less fans in almost twice the amount of games. It proved that the Beavers may be Portland now but they would never be the Mavericks.
While in the city of Roses, the Portland Mavericks left many memories unique to the world of baseball anywhere. Nowhere in my research have I found a team photo where some of the players are holding open bottles of beer. The dog in the picture is a stray hound that wandered in one day and, like most of the players, refused to leave. When the team was close to a series sweep at home, Joe Garza would grab a broom from the dugout and go out on the field or on top of the dugout to start sweeping. Despite all of the antics, the Portland Mavericks could still take their baseball seriously. One time, after being suspended, Reggie Thomas went to discuss the matter with his coach holding a gun. Frank Peters locked himself in the team’s bathroom until Reggie calmed down.
There was also the night when the team bus left Eugene for their next stop. The bus caught fire and the players had to hitchhike to Boise by 6 pm for the next game. When at home, the team had a trick play that involved their team mascot, PL Maverick. In order to give a relief pitcher more time to warm up, they would release their pooch onto the field where it would be chased by umpires and security. They would eventually catch up to the dog but sometimes not before he marked his territory at home plate.
Major League teams would send star pitchers down to the short season A level to keep the independent Portland Mavericks from winning the league championship. Little did they want the team of cast-offs to defeat their prized draft picks.
It was even rumored that at one time, Bing was looking for minority investors in his club. One person who was interested was the king himself, Elvis Presley. Before it could happen, Elvis passed away just a few months later. Instead, Bing was able to attract the investment of Hollywood star, Pia Zadora. Pia even came to a game and sang the National Anthem.
The Portland Mavericks went away after the 1977 season. Each year since, their legend has grown. More and more people ‘remembered’ attending a game. Children born after the last Mavericks game played would recite stories handed down to them by their fathers and grandfathers. Even after the team ceased to exist, the team refused to go away. It became a symbol for those who never got the chance to play. For the children who were always picked last on the playing field if ever at all. Mostly, they were fondly remembered as the bunch of bad boys who thumbed their noses at the big boys even though they would have played for them at a moment’s notice.
The Ghosts Are Back
Today, they have become the ghosts of dreams from the past. Spirits of the never-say-die attitude. A well-loved image of the team you wouldn’t want your daughter to go and see. Most of all, the players who wouldn’t believe in the naysayers who would say they didn’t belong but would believe in themselves no matter what. Like that stray mutt in the photo, they still refuse to go away.
And now they are back. The Hillsboro Hops first wore their version of the Portland Mavericks uniform in 2015. It proved so popular that they are back again in 2018. For five games of the 2018 season, Hops players will wear the red Portland Mavericks jerseys on the playing field.
“The Portland Mavericks are such a cool story and they are part of the fabric of baseball in the Portland-metro area,” said Hillsboro Hops President K.L. Wombacher in a press release. “We’ve been looking for an opportunity to bring these uniforms back since we wore them in 2015, and we’re excited to expand the Portland Mavericks connection with Hops fans.”
The five dates for Maverick Mondays in 2018 are July 2nd, July 16th, August 20th, August 27th and September 3rd.
Many alumni of the Portland Mavericks would go on and play in the big leagues. Or have a Hollywood career. And become award winning writers. Maybe become millionaires making chewing gum in their kitchens. Here are a few of them.
Jim played last for the Portland Mavericks in their final season. He would get his dream to come true the following year when he signed with the Atlanta Braves. He pitched five games for a 1-3 record. Jim retired after that. Jim Bouton now lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
In August 2012, Jim suffered a stroke. Now, at age 78, Jim is struggling with cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a brain disease linked with dementia.
Kurt injured himself trying to turn a double play just before joining the Mavericks. Struggling with the injury, Kurt played one month for the Portland Mavericks. While rehabbing, he continued his acting career. In the Portland Mavericks final season, Kurt tried one more game and retired shortly afterwards. Kurt returned to his acting career and became a Golden Globe winner as well as a Hollywood icon and legend. Today, over 60 years after starting his acting career, Kurt is still adding to that legend. He recently played Ego, Starlord’s father in the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
Before becoming the Portland Maverick’s first coach, Hank was a Hollywood actor and a friend of the Russell family. Hank had already made his debut in Elvis Presley’s Spinout. He continued on with roles in Blazing Saddles, Godfather part II and the Towering Inferno. After his one year of being a baseball manager, Hank returned to acting full time making appearances up to 1990 when he played the first base umpire in Naked Gun.
Hank passed away on April 7th, 2012 at the age of 89.
Rob was a left handed pitcher out of the bullpen for the Portland Mavericks. While sitting in the bullpen one game, he commented about how there should be something else besides chewing tobacco to his friend, Jim Bouton, and got Jim to pony up $10,000 starting money to fund his idea.
The idea became Big League Chew and has made both men millionaires. Rob even posed for the caricature for one of the ball players on the package.
Rob would never make the big leagues as a player but his bubble gum is now in the Hall of Fame. At the age of 69, Rob lives in the Portland area and is still the director of the Southampton Baseball School.
Larry played first base for the Portland Mavericks. Afterwards, he went on to become an award winning writer. His first book, Idol Time, is about the 1977 Champion Portland Trailblazers. He later founded the Portland mainstay, Wordstock, a book festival held in the Portland Art Museum in November. He is a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
Reggie was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 1965 amateur draft. The highest level he attained was triple A with the Toledo Mudhens in 1975. He played for the Portland Mavericks in 1973-76. He is most known for his bringing a gun to a disagreement over playing time.
Reggie reportedly passed away in 1980, but is rumored to have been an FBI informant and went ‘missing’ in 1984.
Even the 12-year-old batboy went on to bigger things. It was in Todd’s family kitchen where the first batch of Big League Chew was made.
Afterwards, Todd left baseball and became an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. His screen play for 2007’s Little Children was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe as was his screenplay for 2001’s In The Bedroom which he also directed. The latter was also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
And lastly, the man who started it all should be the last man to end this look back at the memories that continue to grow in his spirit. After the Portland Mavericks, Bing continued his profession in Hollywood, albeit at a lesser pace. He continued to appear in television shows and movies, sometimes along with his son, Kurt, of whom he was very proud. One the strongest bonds between father and son was baseball.
Bing was a maverick in his own right. Known to be colorful, he grabbed attention everywhere he went and people couldn’t help but to love the man the more they knew him. Most of all, Bing was a champion for those who never got a first chance. Or deserved a second chance. Heck, he would champion anyone to have any chance. He was a fighter and he would fight for everyone.
Bing Russel died April 8th, 2003 in Thousand Oaks, California. He was 76 years old and died of cancer.
There are many other former players, managers and staff worth mentioning. Not only for their time spent with the Portland Mavericks but before and after as well. It would take a very large book to contain all of the stories and people from these short five seasons.
You can meet them all again or for the first time by watching the critically-acclaimed “The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)” In the meantime, you can see their ghosts on the field of the Hillsboro Hops on Portland Maverick nights.
I’ll be there.
Check out other Hillsboro Hops re-branding with the Los Lupulos de Hillsboro Night in tribute to the Hispanic community