Castoffs, Rogues and Winners, the History of the Portland Mavericks

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Local History: The Portland Mavericks
By Robert Matsumura, Contributing Writer

Play ball! During the 1970s, umpires called out the famous phrase to launch Portland Mavericks baseball games at Civic Stadium (Providence Park) in one of the most colorful chapters in the history of Portland baseball.

Although the renegade Portland Mavericks existed for only five summers, this uniquely memorable team will forever be etched in the history of minor league baseball. The Mavericks emerged onto the Portland baseball scene in 1973 with the departure of the Portland Beavers — the city’s long-time triple-A club — moving to Spokane. The Mavericks were owned by ex-minor league baseball player and former actor, Bing Russell, best known for his role as Deputy Clem Foster on the TV Western Bonanza. Bing was the father of well-known actor Kurt Russell, who unbeknownst to many, played for the Portland Mavericks their inaugural season — batting .229 in 23 games.

Baseball players of the Portland Mavericks

Initially, trading the triple-A Beavers for the single-A Mavericks seemed like a raw deal for Portland baseball fans; however, the Portland Mavericks became a surprise success. Bing Russell’s motto for the Mavericks — that it should be “fun” — rendered the game-time atmosphere at Civic Stadium circus-like and light-hearted. Russell was a trendsetter, being one of the first to promote minor league baseball with a focus on fun and entertainment.

As an independent team, unaffiliated with a major league franchise, the Mavericks recruited ex-minor leaguers and ex-big leaguers who were looking for an opportunity to revive fading careers. At the time, Mavericks were the only independent professional baseball team in the country, and despite the fact that they could pay players only $300 a month, hopefuls continued to arrive from across the United States each June to participate in Bing Russell’s tryouts.

Unlike many independent teams, the Mavericks were competitive in their single-A Northwest League. For five seasons straight, the Mavericks were not only competitive, but won a number of league titles. In 1973, this rag-tag collection of baseball castoffs ended the season with a 45-35 record, and won the NWL south division title. The following year, the Mavericks went 50-34, finishing second place in the newly formatted NWL west division. In 1975 and 1976, the Mavericks won the NWL title, but in 1977 (their last year), despite earning the best record in franchise history (44-22), they lost in the championship game to Bellingham. It was a remarkable run for an independent team of baseball rejects and has-beens who, during the course of their short but memorable existence, faced major league prospects such as Ozzie Smith, Dave Steward, Rickey Henderson, Mike Scioscia, Pedro Guerrero, and Dave Henderson—all of whom went on to become big-time stars in the MLB.

Contrary to the Portland Beavers who struggled with attendance in the early 1970s, the Mavericks packed the stands. In three out of five seasons, the Mavericks’ attendance exceeded 100,000 fans. In 1977, the Mavericks attracted 125,300 fans in only 33 games, which remains the attendance record in the minor leagues for short-season single-A level.

Despite the Portland Mavericks’ short existence, their seasons were distinguished by crazy hijinks, creativity, and historic firsts. Among the memorable moments in Mavericks history was the banning of manager Hank Robinson from the NWL for assaulting an umpire. Another was the 1975 game in which player/manager Frank Peters rotated all nine players in the Mavs lineup to a new position each inning. Also, when Peters wasn’t playing or managing the Mavs, he was busy operating several local nightclubs.

Baseball players of the Portland Mavericks

The Mavericks also made history by hiring Lanny Moss and Jon Yoshiwara as General Managers. Moss, hired in 1975, was the first woman to hold the GM position in professional baseball. Yoshiwara, hired in 1977, was the first Asian-American GM in baseball at the professional level. At the same time, the 22-year old Yoshiwara was an active player on the roster as well.

Jim Bouton, ex-New York Yankee pitcher who played for the Mavericks twice, may have been the most notorious of all the team’s players. His famous book Ball Four detailed Burton’s wild experiences on and off field while playing for the Seattle Pilots (a former MLB team who eventually became the Milwaukee Brewers). Despite negative reaction from the MLB commissioner who felt the book painted a picture detrimental to the sport, Ball Four was a massive commercial success, selling millions of copies worldwide. As a Maverick, Bouton, along with the Mavericks pitching coach Rob Nelson, came up with the idea of Big League Chew — a shredded bubble gum alternative to chewing tobacco—that was initially picked up and produced by Wrigley gum.

The Portland Mavericks came to an end in 1977 when the Pacific Coast League decided to return to Portland. Organized baseball at the time operated under the authority of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. In order for the PCL to return to Portland, a deal had to be negotiated between Bing Russell and the PCL for rights to the Portland market. After months of hard bargaining, Russell ended up receiving his asking price of $206,000 — far more than the standard $25,000 compensation rate to relinquish rights to a city.

So remarkable were the Portland Mavericks during their colorful five-year run that Netflix produced the documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which not only recounted their amazing history, but also the Mavericks’ influence on independent baseball in the ensuing years.

Bat Girl of the Portland Mavericks baseball team

After a forty-five year hiatus, Portland Mavericks emerged again as a member of the four-team Mavericks Independent Baseball League of the Salem Metro Area, which plays at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer. The league was formed by the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a previous minor league team in the San Francisco Giants’ system. After the Giants chose to sever their relationship with the Volcanoes, the latter chose to form an independent league of their own. The Volcanoes organization bought rights to the former Portland Mavericks and made them one of the four teams in their new league, consisting of the Volcanoes, Mavericks, Salem Senators, and the Campesinos de Salem-Keizer.

So, when you’re driving down I-5 near Keizer, you may notice a baseball game in progress at Volcanoes Stadium, and it just might be the newly revived Portland Mavericks. And if you’re in the mood for some good old-fashioned entertainment, stop by for a game and cheer on the storied Portland Mavericks!