Bing wanted so badly to become a professional baseball player, but it wasn’t in the cards. On a whim, he decided to move to Hollywood to become an actor. It worked out well for him as he had hundreds of roles on television shows and movies. His most popular movies and televisions shows were westerns like Bonanza, Maverick, and The Rifle Man. But he couldn’t let go of baseball. He developed all kinds of strategies and tactics for winning games. He created numerous training videos using Kurt batting and fielding balls.
He was getting tired of acting and heard that a minor league team for the Seattle Mariners was leaving Portland, Oregon. This was around 1971, and at this time farm teams were being put in place all around the country. It had three levels, Single A, Double A, and Triple A. Major league teams would use these farm clubs to sign players and then place them in the system to see how well they performed. Each level had better players and players in Triple A would sometimes be called up to the majors. Bing saw the team leaving Portland as an opportunity. He checked the city out and made friends with a local restaurant owner in town, and both of them decided to buy the rights to the field and start their own team. They would be the only single A team in the country that was independent; basically, not affiliated with any professional teams.
People thought they were crazy. Who would want to play for them when they weren’t associated with any professional teams? Why would other teams want to play them? Bing knew there were thousands of great baseball players who never got a good shot at playing Major League Ball. He knew that players who had been cut by other organizations, would love to prove themselves. Plus, he knew that there were many baseball players who were obsessed with the game like he was, and don’t want to let go of their dream. He was right, when they got word out in papers across the country, players were coming in from everywhere even though they knew they’d only make $400 a month for a season that lasted four months. He was also right about other teams wanting to play them. Farm teams typically travel by bus and they want their players to get in as much playing time as possible to assess their skills, so they were happy to take on what became the Portland Mavericks; plus, an easy win was good for their records.
The Mavericks were a rough and tumble group of guys with chips on their shoulders. They were going to get a shot at playing teams that had cut them, so they were hungry. To the league’s shock, the Mavericks began winning. Their very first game was an amazing a no-hitter. They weren’t winning by close scores, they were pounding the other teams. They played with reckless abandon. The players weren’t given signals for where to hit or when they could steal a base, Bing let them make their own decisions and it was working.
After an extraordinary season, and finishing first in their league, Bing was chosen as Baseball Executive of the Year. Walking up to the podium to receive his award, he was surrounded by nothing but professional teams and their executives, coaches, and star players. He was a fish out of water. He too had a chip on his shoulder about organized ball. He thought there should be hundreds of ballparks across the country where fans could build relationships with the players versus seeing a star player get pulled up to the big leagues. He didn’t see enough loyalty in baseball, and he wanted it back.
The team became so famous that former baseball player and famous sports broadcaster for NBC, Joe Garagiola, had his network do a show in Portland which was unheard of for a farm club let alone an independent single A team. He thought it was so good he decided to put two shows together. Sports Illustrated did an article on the team along with other publications like The New Yorker. Coast to coast, the amazing story was getting out about what was happening in Portland. Kurt was helping with the team in between movies. Bing had the first Asian manager of a baseball team. He had a bat girl. He had the first female General Manager (Lanny Moss), and she was just 24 at the time. Bing was different. He didn’t follow the protocols of baseball. He kept a 30-man roster when most teams only had around 18 in order to keep their costs down. Bing had a tough time letting anyone go because he understood the passion of wanting to play baseball thus why he kept such a large roster.
He also knew how to put on a show. He encouraged players to unleash their personal demons to some extent. They were irreverent. If they swept a team one of the players would get up on the roof of the dugout with a broom and sweep. Then he’d light the broom on fire and wave it around. The crowd would go wild. Bing would run around the field with the players all holding onto brooms. They celebrated wins with the joy of being kids again whereas most teams they played just treated it like a business.
Fans got to the point where they started bringing brooms on the night of the potential sweep. If a player was kicked out of a game (one night there were two), they’d go up in the stands, hang out with the fans, and buy beer. They had a dog for a mascot and when they needed some levity, they’d throw a ball on the filed and he’d go running after it. The fans cheered when he ran on the field. He had his own playing card. Their games became such an event that they broke all attendance records across the country. Players from other teams wanted to play there because they could get better exposure than at their home stadiums.
Bing’s success was discussed by the Major League organizations and they knew that “for the good of the game,” they needed to stop his run as an independent organization. At first, they began sending good players down to their Single A teams to try and beat the Mavericks. This didn’t work, as every year they had the most wins in their league. They then got together and decided that they’d buy Bing’s Single A team and put a Seattle Mariners’ Triple A team in its place. Keep in mind, they had a farm club team there before, but pulled out of Portland upsetting the fans.
They figured it would be the best way to take Bing out and since our country is divided up into territories for these Major League teams, they could force Bing out if they gave him $5,000 according to the league’s rules. So, after five years (1973 – 1977), of being the most successful minor league team in history, they approached Bing to buy him out and he refused their money. He said the team was worth 50 times what they were offering so it went to arbitration with three powerful attorneys from the Major Leagues against an attorney friend of Bing’s in Portland. To the leagues shock, and a shot heard around the world in the sports community, the judge awarded $206,000 to Bing. He said that Bing had created a baseball market like no other in the country and he was due the money.
Some side notes. The Mariner’s Triple A team that replaced the Maverick’s brought in less than half the crowds and failed to reach the same level of wins. A famous Yankee’s pitcher (Jim Bouton), who pitched in four World Series, got blackballed from the Majors for a book he wrote that brought up the dark side of professional baseball. He called Bing to see if he could play there, and of course Bing said yes. Bouton destroyed other teams from the pitching mound. Johnny Carson had him on his show to talk about his fall from the Majors due to his book and about him joining the Maverick’s. Bouton made fun of the $400 a month salary but said all he cared about was playing baseball and that playing was fun again. When Seattle bought the team, the Atlanta Braves contacted Bouton and he played for them.
One of the players for the Maverick’s (Rob Nelson), and Bouton, came up with an idea for Big League Chew, which looked like a bag of chewing tobacco, but it had gum inside. Its first year’s sales were over $18 million dollars and to date, they’ve sold over 800 million pouches. One of their star players (Reggie Thomas), disappeared and has never been found. Yosh, who was 22 at the time and the first Asian baseball manager, became a teacher. One of their players, Larry Colton, became an author. He wrote five novels and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Their batboy (Todd Field), received five nominations at the Academy Awards for his movie: In the Bedroom. After retiring from baseball, Bing spent time coaching his grandson and one of the other ball boys for his team and they both made it into the Major Leagues.