Baseball and Executive Leadership
Last month I had the wonderful privilege of having dinner with Goldie Hawn and her husband, Kurt Russell, who were guests of my niece, Liz, and her husband, Dale, at their magnificent home overlooking the Pacific in Malibu, California.
It was a truly delightful evening. I was especially glad to tell Kurt how much I loved the documentary on his Dad, Bing Russell’s, ownership of the Portland Mavericks, an independent minor league “A“ baseball team in 1973. The Battered Bastards of Baseball tells the story of how Bing Russell, encouraged by his son, paid $5,000 to rent the Portland field after the AAA team, the Beavers, had left for Spokane, Washington.
From there, Bing created a leading team in the Northwest League, trashing all comers including most of the competitors who were part of major league franchise systems with all resources of big business. They won four division titles in four years, set the record for the highest short season attendance in minor league history, and narrowly missed the league championship.
It is an incredible baseball story which profiles a larger than life personality in Bing Russell. It’s also a wonderful example of high level executive leadership. Russell combined a great love and knowledge about the game of baseball, an ability to select the right players, and the expertise to weld them into a formidable team, in order to imbue them with a passion for winning and allow them the freedom to play without micromanagement. In the end he was able to create a culture that brought joy to the players, the fans, and the City of Portland.
Bing Russell’s attachment to baseball goes back to his teens when he visited the New York Yankees in spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was befriended by Lefty Gomez, pitching star for the Yankees, who introduced him to the rest of the team. It was not long before Bing was traveling with the Yankees. When Lou Gehrig hit his last home run, he gave his bat to Bing. Russell played semipro ball before seeking an acting career in Hollywood where he would complete more than 700 TV dramas, many with Bonanza. He would also co-star with John Wayne, Loretta Lynn, Steve McQueen and Yule Brenner on the big screen. Nevertheless, baseball was his first love. Before training videos were mainstream, Bing made baseball videos teaching the basics of fielding and hitting that were used by coaches in the Major Leagues. Bing Russell knew the baseball business.
Bing did not have deep pockets. There was no way that he could buy the talent that would that would create a winning team. Instead, he held open auditions for players who wanted more than anything to just play the game. They came from all over the United States and overseas, some hitchhiking across country – 300 strong. They were a disheveled crew, with long hair, beards, and minimal equipment. Among this group of outcasts was a left handed catcher, a 33-year-old pitcher who had been teaching high school, a ball player from South Africa, and a manager who owned a local tavern. All had been rejected by other teams, and were a good bit older than their competitors. What they lacked in demeanor and resume, they more than made up for in a willingness to play their hearts out, seek every advantage in setting records on stolen bases, and never give up. Bing had no interest in externals. He had every interest in their commitment to work together, play fundamental baseball, and win. There were no set plays, no signals from the dugout. Everyone was on their own to make the best call when to swing and when to steal. In addition, the Mavericks were the first professional baseball team to hire a woman as general manager.
No team had more fun. When a Maverick relief pitcher needed more time to warm up, the team mascot, a black lab, was let loose on the field causing the umpires to chase him around until they caught him. One of the players, Joe Garza, would get out a broom and begin sweeping when the Mavericks had won two out of a three series. The team put a loud speaker on their bus announcing the bad, bad Portland Mavericks, and advising townspeople to lock up their daughters.
Bing was a student of people as well as a student of the game. Kurt told me of once watching a player strike out on a curve waiting for a fast ball. Bing told his son, “This guy has a problem with his father. He is waiting on a fastball so he can show his father that he can hit it out of the stadium. He’s going to have to get over it so he can contribute to the team.” When asked why Reggie, the speedster on the diamond who lived only two blocks from the stadium, was picked up in a black sedan each morning to take him to the ball field, Bing said, “Reggie needs it.” The players, in return, loved Bing. Even though the Mavericks never won a championship, Bing bought them all championship rings that were measured to fit the middle finger.
The franchise teams had many advantages. They were paid superior wages. The players knew that if they did well they stood a chance to play in the majors. They traveled in style and stayed in far better hotels when on the road. Yet from one day to the next, the players on the franchise teams changed as the owners would select a player who was doing well and promote him. Not only did the fans have a difficulty in attaching themselves to a player they liked, but the other players on the team did not know who they might have to adjust to. On the other hand, the players on the Mavericks had the luxury of working together and melding as a team on and off the field. The only change might be getting a pitcher who had been kicked out of the majors like Jim Bouton. Here was a guy who had pitched in the world series and been kicked out of major league baseball when he published Ball Four, an inside look in the life of players off the field. But man could he pitch.
At the beginning of the season no one thought the Mavericks more than a joke. Then they won their first game. A no hitter! In the course of five years, the Mavericks set League winning records. Russel was recognized for his baseball leadership with the Class A Executive of the Year Award. The Mavericks’ performance was so incredible that it gained national news coverage. The team was featured in Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker magazine. Major League sports caster, Joe Garagiola, visited this “A” team and did two nationally broadcasted shows on the Mavericks. The Mavericks would have won the league championship had the opposing team not brought back players from the majors to strengthen their roster. So embarrassed were the franchise owners of other teams that they backed the Beavers to exercise their option to return to Portland. Bing Russell then won a landmark case forcing the Majors accept the payment of $206,000[EP1] , instead of the $26,000 they offered.
Jim Collins describes a level 5 leader as one who has a fanatical commitment to his team and a willingness to put himself second. He is one who can choose the “right whos,” people who are self-motivated and self-disciplined, and allow them to do the job. He never gives up. Kurt said that the measure of approval for a film is the online “rotten tomatoes” website. If an actor or movie is awarded 65%, the movie is a success. This movie was rated 100% by the “Tomatometer.” I have always said that it is always about leadership. The right leadership makes great things happen in spite of the odds. Bing Russell was just such a leader.