Northwest League (1973-1977)
Stadium: Civic Stadium
Owner: Bing Russell
The Portland Mavericks. This renegade ball club existed for only five summers, but managed to leave an indelible stamp (their contemporary detractors might have said “stain”) on the landscape of minor league baseball. The Mavs came to town in 1973 after the Beavers, Portland’s long-time entry in the Pacific Coast League, moved to Spokane, Washington.
It didn’t seem like a promising trade-off for Portland baseball fans at first. The Beavers played triple-A baseball, just one step removed from the Major Leagues. Or at least one call up away from their woeful parent club, the Cleveland Indians, who seemed a dozen steps removed from Major League Baseball during the 1970’s. Unlike all of their rivals in the single-A Northwest League, the Mavs had no Major League affiliation. They were one of the first and only viable independent clubs, signing their own players wherever they could find them. The Mavs roster consisted of the unwanted, unwashed and washed-up, many of whom traveled from all over North America to attend owner Bing Russell’s open tryouts each June.
Russell was a long-time character actor in Westerns, best known for portraying Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza. His motto for the Mavs was simply “Fun” and Mavs games at Portland’s multi-purpose Civic Stadium had a circus-like atmosphere. Russell was ahead of his time in emphasizing fun & entertainment as the primary product of minor league baseball. It was the people’s team and Portland fans flocked to Civic Stadium in record numbers. During the Mavs first season in 1973, the club set the all-time Class A short-season attendance mark and broke it again for each of the next two years.
A sampling of Mavericks moments:
- First year Mavs manager Hank Robinson was banned from the Northwest League for assaulting an umpire.
- 1975 Mavs player/manager Frank Peters once rotated all nine players in his Mavs lineup to a new position each inning.
- Peters juggled his responsibilities playing for and managing the Mavs with running several nefarious nightclubs in Portland, including “Satan’s Disco”. He became a marijuana grower in Portland in the late 1980’s and spent time in prison for sex offenses.
- Russell appointed pro baseball’s first female General Manager in Lanny Moss in 1975 and first Asian-American GM with Jon Yoshiwara in 1977. (oddly, the 22-year old Yoshiwara was also a Mavs’ utility infielder that summer)
- The club (twice) signed dead-armed ex-Yankee Jim Bouton, who was more or less blackballed by organized baseball for his taboo-shattering 1970 memoir Ball Four. Bouton ultimately made it back to the Majors after his second stint with the Mavs.
- Bouton and Mavericks pitching coach Rob Nelson came up with the concept for Big League Chew shredded chewing gum during a lazy night in the Mavs bullpen.
- Bing Russell’s son Kurt played for the Mavs in 1973. The future star of Escape From New York and Miracle hit .229 in 23 games for the Mavs that summer.
- Mavs batboy Todd Field grew up to become the Academy Award-nominated writer/director of the films Little Children and In The Bedroom
Unlike virtually all other defunct ball clubs, the Mavs never folded or moved. They were paid to go away. In late 1977, the Pacific Coast League decided to expand back into Portland. All of organized baseball operated under the auspices of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. In order for the PCL to get back into Portland, National Association President Bobby Bragan had to hammer out a settlement between the PCL and Bing Russell for rights to the Portland market. The going compensation rate to abandon a city to a higher level league was about $25,000. Russell demanded $206,000 and after a long winter of wrangling in various airport hotel rooms, he got every penny of it.
During the last season of Mavericks baseball in 1977, the low-level independent club drew 125,300 to see 33 games at Civic Stadium. When the Beavers, triple-A baseball and the Cleveland Indians returned in 1978, only 96,395 turned out for 69 games.
Big League Chew – Mavs’ pitcher Rob Nelson’s substitute for chewing tobacco – has gone on to sell more than a half a billion pouches worldwide since its introduction in 1980.
In 2014, Netflix released a fantastic documentary on the Mavs called “The Battered Bastards of Baseball”. Check out trailer below and grab it on the Netflix if you can.
Bing Russell passed away in April 2003 at age 76. His blueprint for running a ball club influenced both the resurgence of independent baseball leagues in the mid-1990’s and the general re-branding and revival of minor league baseball as “affordable family entertainment” in the 1980’s.