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.