Critics still argue about which book might qualify as the greatest American novel. Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and numerous others have been put forth as candidates. The “just-the-facts-ma'am” answer lies in Philip Roth's 1973 work The Great American Novel. That's right, for those who missed its publication (trains are embarking now to internment camps for those so unpatriotic as to have not read those hallowed pages), The Great American Novel begins with the line, “Call me Smitty.”
Roth's narrator, Word Smith, a sportswriter, tells the tale of a baseball league that has been systematically wiped from the American consciousness. The book concentrates on the 1943 season when the team Word Smith covers, the Ruppert Mundys, have given up their home park to the US Department of War. Some of the characters who make up the Mundys perpetually visiting lineup reflect WWII replacement players in the American and National Leagues. The Mundys one-armed outfielder Bud Parusha obviously parallels the St. Louis Brown's one-armed player Pete Gray. Other characters like John Baal, Gil Gamesh, and Roland Agni come with attributes or weaknesses that remind readers of the gods of ancient cultures or mythic literary figures (see La Chanson de Roland).
Throughout, Roth swings for Homer-ic humor or slashes for the laughter jugular. Just as in the sport itself he often hits safely no more than three out of ten times, but when he recounts the personal history of first baseman, John Baal, “the Babe Ruth of the Big House,” Hall of Fame howls ensue. Not to mention Baal's father, Spit, a pitcher who hurled wet, stringy stuff, or John Baal's grandfather, Base Baal, who played the game in its infancy, when plugging a runner between the bases not only meant an out but was the order of the day for infielders. Even after the sport fully organized under modern rules, Base would occasionally forget himself and plug a runner in that certain part of a man's anatomy that he always aimed for.
You want to talk about baseball teams that have been wiped from our consciousness, a team with players as wacky, weird and legendary as something only a writer or filmmaker could invent, well, here we go.
Remember 1973? The same year Roth's baseball book, The Great American Novel, was published, the Portland Mavericks began their half decade of existence. Even a writer as accomplished as Roth couldn't make up the Portland Mavericks. The Mavericks of 1973 through 1977 were owned by Bing Russell. Those of you old enough to remember when westerns dominated the television screen in the late 1950s and early 1960s may well be able to picture Bing Russell as the recurring deputy sheriff character on Bonanza. He appeared in hundreds of television episodes and Hollywood western movies, often getting “shot” by the protagonist or antagonist early on in the story.
If you know any of that about Bing Russell, you probably are aware that he was also the father of the more widely known actor Kurt Russell; however, not that many know that Bing Russell was a bat boy for the New York Yankees in the late 1930s. In one of Lou Gehrig's final spring training games before he was diagnosed with ALS, Gehrig hit a home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers. When he returned to the dugout he handed his bat to twelve-year-old Bing Russell who cherished that bat for the rest of his life.
Bing Russell bought the rights to the minor league Portland baseball team in 1973. The truly independent team he put on the field came as a result of open tryouts that brought would-be ballplayers from every corner of the country. The usual major league team carries no more than 25 players by rule. Bing Russell didn't care much for major league baseball's rules and he couldn't bear to cut a borderline player, so he carried a squad of thirty, including his son Kurt. Both Kurt and Bing were good enough ballplayers to have already played minor league baseball before their Portland experience (Bing in the late 1940s and Kurt in the late 1960s and early '70s for affiliates of the California Angels).
The Portland Mavericks roster also included Jim Bouton, a former Yankee 20 game winner in the 1960s. If you are a baseball fan and have not read Bouton's Ball Four, well, you will never truly understand the sport or the business until you get hold of a copy. After that, reading the phrase, “Smoke 'im low and away then let's go pound some Bud,” will forever bring a smile to your face.
Bouton and fellow Maverick Rob Nelson essentially invented Big League Chew bubble gum while seeking an alternative to chewing tobacco. Anyone familiar with the painfully premature recent death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn should be thankful that Nelson and Bouton may have helped turn some of the succeeding generations of ballplayers away from the insidious illnesses that chewing tobacco brings on.
One of the Portland Mavericks batboys went on to an Academy Award nominated career in filmmaking and he wasn't from the Russell clan. The Mavericks biggest star once pulled a gun on the team's manager. Just like on screen, Bing Russell stepped in and reportedly said, “If anybody's gonna get shot here, it'll be me first.”
I don't want to tell too much about the Mavericks (they made the “fightin' Oakland A's” of the same era look tame) because you can now see a documentary about the whole thing. The Battered Bastards of Baseball was produced by two of Bing Russell's grandsons (Kurt's nephews). It's can be streamed on your computer through Netflix. I haven't seen the whole thing, but if it's as good as the previews Bing would be proud.