Remembering the Portland Mavericks

The Mavericks were an independent minor league team in Portland in the mid-’70s, but maybe you already know that. To give a good introduction of the team, here’s Jim Bouton remembering “The ‘Vintage’ Big Bad Mavs” in an article for the Oregonian in April 2001:

The Portland Mavericks, boys and girls, were a baseball team that I’m proud to say I played for — twice. Once, for a few weeks in 1975, on vacation from my job as a TV sportscaster in New York, and again two years later when I quit TV altogether to begin my comeback to the major leagues. The sheer insanity of quitting a good job to play minor league baseball was what qualified me to be a Mav.

The “Big Bad Mavs,” as we were known to friend and foe alike, were a collection of misfits, ne’er-do-wells and degenerates who played ball and wreaked havoc in the Class A Northwest League from 1973 to 1977. Owned appropriately enough by actor Bing Russell of TV’s “Bonanza,” the team was made up of players who’d been released, or had never even been signed by a major league organization.

We made only $300 a month and had to double as the grounds crew. . . .

The Mavs were the most democratic team in America. A small newspaper ad for open tryouts attracted doctors, lawyers, plumbers, actors, gas station attendants, dope fiends and ex-cons from all over the country, who hitchhiked, backpacked and slept in tents in the outfield just to try out for the Mavs. You didn’t need a character reference to play. Which may explain why we led the league in umpires terrorized, hotel closets filled with empty beer cans and bar fights never started on purpose. “They’re not bad boys, Father, just unruly.”

The Mavs had more than their share of wackos, starting with the manager who, for purposes of this story, we’ll call Frank Peters. Frank, whose job it was to frisk the players before sending them into a game, spent time in jail for failing to distinguish between a felony and fan appreciation.

Our best player was Reggie “That’s Not My Gun” Thomas, a fleet-footed outfielder who was famous for turning sure doubles into singles so he could steal second base and win free sandwiches awarded by the Souvlaki Stop diner.

Then there was Phil “I Wish You Were Dead” Moreno. That’s what Phil said to a Bellingham motel manager when his TV set wouldn’t work. Six hours later the guy died of a heart attack. “Nice going, Phil,” said one of the Mavs, “now we have to move to another motel.” . . .

Other characters included Steve “Cut” Colette, a third baseman who looked like a pirate; Jim “Swanee” Swanson, a left-handed catcher (you need a left-handed catcher in case anyone tries to steal first base); Joe “Dine and Dash” Garza, who was allergic to restaurant tabs; trainer Steve “Doc” Katz, who dispensed homeopathic remedies for sore arms and hangovers; and Rob “Baby-Face” Nelson, who dreamed up Big League Chew in the bullpen at Civic Stadium. . . .

The most famous Mav was Kurt Russell, who could have played in the big leagues if he hadn’t gone into the acting business. Kurt was a good-fielding second baseman who could really pick ‘em up, on and off the field. The whole team was a bunch of pick-up artists, in fact. And nobody was off limits — waitresses, bar maids, secretaries, opposing team girlfriends, umpire’s wives. I never said we were smart.

In 1995, the Oregonian‘s Dwight Jaynes added that Bing Russell’s “teams came within a run of two pennants and when he finally was moved out of the territory for Triple A by Leo Ornest in 1978 he was awarded $206,000 — a stunning sum at the time.”

Russell: “I knew that we could put together a team good enough to win. A lot of people told us at the time that we couldn’t. We were a second chance for a lot of guys — even a first chance for some. I’ll always regret, though, that we didn’t win at least one pennant.

“The major-league organizations didn’t want us to win. They pitched Rick Sutcliffe against us twice in one series one year.”

And a couple years earlier, Jaynes talked with Jim Bouton about the invention of Big League Chew. Bouton:

“I was playing with the Portland Mavericks. A bunch of us were sitting in the bullpen talking about how disgusting chewing tobacco was. I can’t stand it. I never have been a smoker or a chewer and I was talking about something we could do as a substitute for tobacco.

“Rob Nelson, another pitcher, felt the same way. He said, ‘How about shredded gum?’ We were going to call it Maverick Chew. But we finally decided on Big League Chew. I think it was the right call.”

“For once, it was an idea I followed through on. Rob cooked up some gum in his kitchen and sliced it up with a knife, we packaged it up and took it to Fleer, Topps, Leaf, Donruss — a lot of big companies — and they all told us, ‘We don’t make anything like that.’

“I said, ‘I know you don’t. That’s the idea.’ Finally we got a little company called Amurol Products, a $9 million subsidiary of the Wrigley Co., to make it. They are a specialty company that made stuff like bubble-gum shoelaces, and bubble gum in the shape of records and hamburgers.

“In the first 12 months, they sold $18 million worth of Big League Chew.”

Jaynes noted-this was in 1993-that “for the last 13 years, the product has averaged a steady $12 million a year. Nelson and Bouton have turned a tidy profit — enough to finance Nelson’s continued pursuit of a baseball career.”

Bouton said Nelson was “pitching in South Africa now. He’s going to keep pitching until he finds a continent that can’t hit him.”

Russell, the Mavericks owner, talked with Jaynes on another occasion, saying:

“I always said you needed three things to run a team. You have to have a knowledge of the game so you have a chance to sign the best players you can.

“You have to have a business sense, an idea of dollars in and dollars out. I think I’ve always been a pretty good businessman.

“And third, you have to have what I call ‘dramatergies.’ You have to have stories, and I had been in show business since I was about 6 years old. We had a never-ending string of dramatergies all the time with the Mavs. There was always something.”

“The best ideas usually came from somewhere else. My job was to cull the ideas. We probably had 7,000 people coming up with ideas for us and all I had to do was pick the best.

“It’s pretty easy to get a good script if you have 7,000 people working on it.”

“We were one run away from a pennant twice. They used to bring guys in for the playoffs to pitch against us. I remember they once pitched Rick Sutcliffe against us twice in one series. And we had to face Bob Owchinko, too. The organizations didn’t want an independent team to win the pennant.

“I wanted to win so bad. I still think the one thing that could get me back in baseball would be a chance to win a World Series ring.

“I could own the New York Yankees and not have as much fun as I did in Portland. I love that town.

“You know, lot of people in baseball thought we were some kind of buffoons in Portland. But there was a genuine love for the game of baseball there that anyone around us always recognized.

“We had a lot of fun. It was a great time in my life.”

And, in August 2001, Paul Buker, in the Oregonian, described Mavericks manager Frank Peters:

Peters was not a typical manager.

“The secret to managing,” Peters said more than once, “is to keep the players who hate you away from the players who are undecided.”

One of Peters’ players — who tended to veer into the first category — was the talented but mercurial Reggie Thomas, one of the greatest base stealers in Northwest League history.

Peters and Thomas had sort of a love-hate relationship. Thomas had visions of playing in the major leagues, and major league scouts did watch Mavericks games. So it was a big deal when Peters didn’t have Thomas in the lineup. Reggie tended to take it personally.

There was the day Thomas was benched for refusing to help put the tarpaulin on the field — the Mavericks couldn’t afford a grounds crew, so players were expected to pitch in — and Peters ended up getting punched in the mouth.

In the ensuing melee, Thomas threatened his manager with a shovel — thereby proving he wasn’t entirely averse to the tools of field maintenance — but several Mavericks, including future actor Kurt Russell, broke it up.

When Peters came out to meet the umpires, he had the lineup card in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, wiping the blood off his mouth.

But the capper came at a Sunday afternoon game when Peters had suspended Thomas.

“When you get suspended from the Portland Mavericks , that’s like the last stop at the OK Corral in your career,” Peters said. “Reggie figured if he was going to go out, he was going to take me with him.”

Peters was sitting with Mavericks owner Bing Russell in the dugout when pitcher Jim Emery walked up and remarked, “Reggie has a gun, and he said he’s going to shoot you.”

This enraged Russell, the veteran character actor (he was the sheriff on Bonanza) who was as big a goofball as Peters.

“I get top billing here!” Russell said. “If you’re going to shoot somebody, shoot me first. Shoot him second.”

But this wasn’t TV; Thomas really did have a gun.

“There was a little bathroom at the end of the dugout, and I locked myself in,” Peters said. “I slid the lineup card underneath the door. I couldn’t believe it: Here I am locked in the bathroom and Bing Russell’s waiting to take the first bullet.”

Cooler heads prevailed, as they say, and manager and player came to an understanding when Peters emerged from the head.

“I put him back in the lineup,” Peters said, “and I didn’t try to discipline him again.”

Finally, I recently talked with Rob Nelson about his time with the Mavs, and you can read that interview. I also looked up the Oregonian’s coverage of the Mavs’ first games, in June 1973, and that post can be seen here.

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What an excellent story. I grew up in the Seattle area in the 1970′s (when the Rainiers were playing in the NWL), and we HATED the Mavericks. What a bunch of cocky sons of b—–s they were…but they beat us and everyone else often enough. Jim Bouton was probably a voice of reason with that crew, which may be all you need to know about the Portland Mavericks.

    I’ll never forget going to the Rainiers’ last-ever game in 1976 when George Meyring beat Portland 2-0 at Sick’s Stadium. I still have the program and a full ticket from that game, which was the last pro game at the ballpark and the last for a Seattle minor league team. We were in first place in the division at that time, but the NWL was a seven-team league that season and the Mavericks then went up to Bellingham for a series while the Rainiers had a bye. Portland ended up winning two of three (I think) in Bellingham to beat Seattle out for the division title while all the Rainiers could do was watch.

    Oh well, the years have softened my memories of the Mavericks…a little. Portland really had something special with that team, and they surely loved them.

  2. Apparently Reggie Thomas died aged 34… Anyone know what happened? The guy sounded pretty unbalanced but I can’t find any informtation anywhere…

  3. I played on that team in 1974 – was traded between games of a double header from The New Westminster Frasers to the Mavs. Couldn’t believe the group of misfits we had on that team. Plenty of minor league stories there to keep any writer busy. In spite of all the antics we battled for the division title right down to the wire.
    Ah…the bush leagues…….

  4. I am looking for a baseball training film from the 1960′s titiled “Action Baseball.” It was filmed in Thousand Oaks, CA with HS Senior League
    All Star players, It runs approx 2 hours and may be on 16mm. I know it was marketed as a tool to help coaches teach their LL teams. Thanks

  5. Folkes….the Mavericks lived up to the name! Great fun and lottsa funky players who hung-out in Magoos, Salem! $1 beer nite was packed…you could by 10. Miss baseball in Portland…hurry back Beavers!

  6. One of the best articles written about the famous Mavs is, “Legendary Mavs spread smiles across the Ball Park”, written in the Oregonian paper. I don’t have the writer’s name right now, but I thank him for mentioning me as one of the most memorable Mavs. Bing Russell sent it to me, mounted on a plaque. It romantically captures the Mav spirit and describes the experience of watching us fight to beat the other big-league organization’s teams and prove we were good enough to be picked up, and get back to a big league club and get a shot at the big leagues. At least that’s the way it was for me and a big handful of players that played for the Mavs. Some of the players, like Rob Nelson, were lucky and probably happy to be getting a chance to be a player on a minor league professional baseball team, and he did make the most of his stint as a team member by capitalizing on Big-League Chew, gum. But the Mavs that made us winners and memorable were playing for a whole lot more than to advertise and exaggerate ones team contribution and participation to make a buck.

    The Mavs were famous, because of the player’s extreme desire, determination, and intensity of play. That extreme behavior coupled with the freedom of being on an independent club caused exciting events to breakout on and off the field. The Mav’s story, once covered by Joe Garigiola, were made famous by Bing Russell’s love of baseball, his big charismatic presence, his since of show biz flair, his ability to be tough, to fight for what he believed, his desire to win and make a mark in baseball in the way he wanted. He and fire-cracking players with our powerful drive to shine were sometimes connected asone formidable force playing as one, and at other times we were arguing and fighting like we were going to kill each other.

    Bing and I often walked across the street for a beer at the hotel bar across the street after the stage-play we were in together at the Civic Theater, and we would talk about life, baseball, acting, showbiz, and family. He loved his family. He said, “If A man doesn’t take care of his family, he’s not a man.” He said to me a couple times, “Emery, if a story is done about the Mavs you’d be catalyst character.”

    I played with the Mavs during some of the most exciting times, with many of the most exciting players. I was the lone player in the locker room, getting ready to pitch, the day Reggie Thomas, the fastest runner in baseball, came storming in, loudly shrieking, over and over that “mother fu_king Peter’s is fu_king with my career!” He ripped opened his locker, pulled out a pistol and said, “I’m goin to shoot that mother fu_ker!” I tried to calm him down and talk some since into him, “you’ll never play again, Reggie, if you shoot Peters!” But he was determined because, Peter’s wasn’t playing him, for showing up late and not helping with pregame duties. I ran-walked out to the dugout and warned Peter’s, that “Reggie’s got a gun and he’s coming out to shoot your ass!” Bing surely did lock Peter’s in the dugout bathroom to protect him. Reggie came strolling into the dugout several innings into the game, with a big smile on his face, acting like nothing happened…without the gun.

    Having made the leagues all-star team, along with some of the other most memorable Mavs, the stakes were high for us, and we didn’t want anything to stop us from the opportunity to move up and away from the Mavs and the Northwest League. I was told the other pitcher picked was Rick Sutcliff. I shut him and the dodgers out twice that year. Very satisfying. Fast balls on the hands. One of the memories of drama remember on the field with our manager Peters, was when he came out to the mound when I was pitching against the Dodgers, the bases loaded, one or no outs and he was really concerned about me pitching myself into trouble and then pitching out of it, so far unscathed. He said, “Emery you’re giving me a damn heart attack!” I pitched better under pressure, so I implored him not to bring in the reliever that might let in runs. “Leave me in”, I said, “I’ll get out of it, don’t worry.” He did, and again, I pitched out of it with a pop-up and a strikeout, without any runs scored. I think we won, one or two to nothing. Peters was a man who would go with you if you believed in yourself. He had a sense about people and was willing to engage in any conflict if he thought it would help. I was involved with and saw a lot of wild, crazy, exciting, funny experiences that epitomize what the Mavs were about.
    I’m proud to have been able to spend so much time with Bing Russell, and to have gotten to know him as much as I did. He was a great man. Long live Bing Russell and the Mav’s memory. We were Independent Baseball at it’s best and most entertaining. That’s showbiz.

  7. The thing about indy teams in affiliate leagues was that the other organizations did NOT want the indies to win. That would make a lot of farm directors that let players go who went on to do well for the Mavs look very, very bad. A great take on this is Roger Kahn’s “Good Enough to Dream,” which I consider a much better book than “The Boys of Summer” (Roger’s shameless namedropping notwithstanding).

    But, Jim, as much as I had to admit Portland had some pretty damned good teams, I still couldn’t stand you guys back then (especially JoGarza and his freaking broom). Some author would have a goldmine writing about you but selling it as “non-fiction” would be a challenge because if you weren’t there, the Mavs story would be hard to believe.

  8. How did Reggie Thomas die? Can someone please tell me; it is important. Thanks.

  9. In a conversation, with an associate on a trip to an annual meeting a month ago, one thing lead to another and baseball was brought up. I happen to mention to him I was once involved with the front office of the Portland Mavericks. Told about him about this tag rag team called the Portland Mavericks, and the characters that made it up. I was in the advertising and marketing game, not as a player. I played some baseball in the Navy, but I wasn’t one of those that showed up for a try out. Bing was merely a customer my wife and I sold advertising specialities to at first. We also sold ad space, and as a commercial artist, I created ads. Bing had an old buddy in charge of advertising. He was probably around 70-years old, and was once a Cleveland Browns football player I was told. He was a character in his own right. It was time for the new ’74 season to start and a new baseball program was supposed to be ready in about a week. Bing was horrified to find out his friend’s plan to create advertising for the book consisted only of cutting up business cards he had been supplied. The ads were sold and the advertisers were expecting a little more than a chopped up business card ad.

    Bing asked me if I could help put together a program book (go to Portland Mavericks Facebook site to see a preview of some of the materials I posted on that site). Somehow I how to layout and create real ads, and produce a printed book before the first game. I must have been young and foolish because I said I would. I worked around the clock for a week, lined up a printer, and had a program book ready verily before game time, saving the day. After that, Bing asked my wife (a great ad saleswoman), and myself to sell ads for the Mavericks, and do some marketing for the Mavs. Little did we know what we were getting into. LOL. Everything you ever, or will read about the Mavs is probably true. We spent a lot of time in the small office buried under the seats of Civic Stadium. I have several stories I could tell. But it is hard to know where to start first. I only became aware of this site and others about the Mavericks because my friend and associate checked out the Mavericks online after our conversation to see if in fact the stories about the Mavericks was indeed true because they seemed, I am sure to him, outlandish. He asked if I knew about the documentary film about the Mavericks. No, I said, I haven’t thought about them much because that was a very long time ago, but I would definitely check it out. While my wife and myself were just background characters in the front office, we knew all the principle players mentioned, including Kurt. In fact, for years we exchanged Christmas cards with Bing and his wife Lou.

    One short story. Bing’s old buddy, whose ad layout job I took over, conned me into going to a Kiwanis Club meeting in Salem to sell season tickets, telling me he would be the club spokesman and all I had to do was collect the checks from a few people and get a free lunch. Instead, we arrived and were introduced as the featured speakers, and given a place at an elevated dais above what had to be 100 people. The big barrel of a man with white, unruffled hair, and gravy stained tie then proceeded, without any fore warning, to introduce me as the featured speaker because Bing had to go to Hollywood to make a movie. The president smiled as he introduced me, and kindly told me I didn’t have to rush because I was slotted for ten minutes. I had never spoken before ten people, not alone a hundred! But because I put together the infamous club program, I could at least recite some stats, especially how Reggie Thomas broke the base stealing records, and how we looked forward to an even bigger year from him. Somehow I stumbled through, and got a big round of applause. After which I quietly turned to Frank and said, “Don’t ever do that to me again!” I was never nervous about speaking to a large group again.


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