Those who believe there are no second, third, fourth or fifth acts to American lives probably don't know Frank Peters, who plays a supporting role in a film to be released July 11 on Netflix.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, is purportedly about the Portland Mavericks, a minor-league baseball team that thrived in the 1970s, a time when it was the only professional club in the nation not owned by a Major League Baseball franchise. But it's really about a bunch of mavericks—has-beens and never-weres whose love of baseball was exceeded only by a passion for inverting it.
While the star of the film is Mavericks owner Bing Russell, an actor who was the father of actor Kurt Russell (who played for the team), the leading light is Peters, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Oregon boy who managed the team, lived by basic idioms—"Make sure the people who hate your guts are separated from those who haven't made up their minds"—and once had to hire a bodyguard to protect him from his own players.
Today, a more meditative Peters lives in an apartment in Southeast Portland, sitting on his laurels, having recently closed the Grand Cafe and Andrea's Cha Cha Club, a bar/dancehall at the east end of the Morrison Bridge that Peters was affiliated with for more than 20 years, and where he served everything from reindeer to rodent while presiding over events such as strip karaoke and lesbian dance party.
And he lives with the memory of his 1989 convictions for statutory rape and drug offenses, crimes that sent him to prison for 2½ years. "At the time, I was treated fairly," he says. "I did my time and I obeyed all the laws. It was a big wake-up call. I made a big change after that, so I view it as something to learn from and work through.
"If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't. But I did."
Explaining further, Peters says: "If it wasn't for the drugs involved, there never would have been the actions with the underage girls. They all kind of go hand in hand."
Before that, Peters had been the all-American golden boy, albeit with a psychedelic twist. He bounced around minor-league baseball, dated gorgeous women, drove Cadillacs, and dabbled in politics. He has had so many lives—and close calls—that, at a reflective age 71, even he has a hard time assessing it beyond "full-speed, 24/7 all the time, forever."
The New Yorker once described Peters as "a platonic ideal of a baseball player…tall and rangy with a horsey handsome face and light blue eyes under blond eyebrows." What they didn't mention was he had the schizophrenic bleeding heart of a junior Joe DiMaggio, a conservative John F. Kennedy and an idealistic Viking Willy the Pimp all packed into the same rib cage.
Peters was born in Corvallis, where his father, Norman, played right end and kicker on the Oregon State football team that beat Duke, 20-16, in the 1942 Rose Bowl. The game was moved from Pasadena, Calif., to Durham, N.C., because of fears about a possible attack by the Japanese on the West Coast shortly after Pearl Harbor. His uncle, George, was the team's quarterback.
Frank Peters also attended Oregon State, playing on the 1962-63 Beavers basketball team that reached the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament and included future NBA player Mel Counts; Terry Baker, the football star who won the 1962 Heisman Trophy; and Steve Pauly, a multisport athlete who is a member of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.
Peters dropped out of college his junior year to sign with the Baltimore Orioles. He played 10 seasons in the minor leagues, five of them in triple-A ball.
Peters got into the bar business in 1972, explaining: "In the offseason while playing in the minors, I'd bartend at Pudgy Hunt's the Bottle Shop, over by the Lloyd Center, where all the local hockey players hung out. I got $2.85 an hour, and I was wildly overpaid. So my thought was: This is the life."
His first venture was Peters Inn. Located on Southwest 4th Avenue and Taylor Street, Peters' office was like a lady-killer Scrooge McDuck's bar—cash and ingenues everywhere.
Peters' girlfriends included fiery punk-rocker Kate Fate, lead singer of Kate Fate and the Fingers of Doom. Frank recalls the day Fate showed up at his Portland Center penthouse apartment and knocked on the door. Peters, just out of the shower, inquired, "Who's there?" She replied, "Marry me or die."
When Peters said that marriage was a very important step and they should talk about it first, Fate fired three "penis-high" rounds from a pistol through his door. She missed, and Peters was philosophical: "In the old days, gunshots were just loud noises. Now everybody takes them seriously."
Bing Russell's Mavericks came to Portland in 1973, and he needed a manager.
As a baseball town, Portland was notorious wet wood—the city's ballpark was Multnomah Stadium, a dismal concrete citadel that recalled an open-air tomb. For years, the triple-A Portland Beavers could barely get spectators in the seats for free. When the Beavers moved to Spokane, Russell—a Hollywood actor who by his own estimation had been shot at least 123 times in movies and TV shows starring everybody from John Wayne to Steve McQueen, and whose biggest part was as Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza—stepped in. While Russell made his living as an actor, he was also a baseball groupie who was friends with DiMaggio and, for $500, bought the franchise rights to the Mavericks, a new team in the Class A Northwest League.
Russell had a different vision for his team than most baseball owners, one where entertainment was as important as athleticism. "Bing Russell was like the guy in The Music Man," Peters says. "A great showman, he believed Portland was the greatest baseball town ever. He dressed us in 'streetwalker' red uniforms—better to put the 'balls' back in baseball."
After Russell fired his first manager, Hank Robinson, for punching an umpire, he approached Peters. "Basically, I got the job through Peters Inn, where all the local sports writers hung out, " Peters says. "One, Ken Wheeler of The Oregon Journal, knew Bing Russell, which helped. And then I pitched in a Mavs' exhibition game where we blew out a Eugene team 23-4, and drew 4,000 fans. Though when Bing offered me the job, Wheeler said don't take it because the Mavericks were bound to fail."
Peters served as player-manager of the Mavericks in 1974 and '75. As manager, his motto was "No rules, no signs." He proved it, however briefly, by having his 79-year-old high-school coach play third base.
Peters was a disciplinarian—"dope smokers to the back of the bus"—and his methods were unique. He once rotated the squad over nine innings so every player got to play every position, and he guided the Mavericks despite obstacles. To quote Inside Sports magazine (March 1985): "Peters, in an effort to shake the Mavericks out of a tremendous slump, decided to pick his starting lineup out of a hat. When Reggie Thomas was not chosen, the hard-hitting outfielder responded by producing a .44 Magnum and chasing Peters to his office. Barely beating Thomas to the door, Peters scribbled a hastily revised lineup: Not only was Thomas included—he was leading off!"
The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a family affair, made by 20-something brothers Chapman and Maclain Way. Their grandfather was Bing Russell, who died in 2003 at 76, and Kurt Russell, 63, is their uncle. The Way brothers got the idea to produce the film after seeing a team photo of the Mavericks, some wearing their jerseys backward, others drinking beer, with a dog running around.
The documentary has received excellent opening reviews. Variety: "A fast-paced valentine to…underdog victors and hairpin twists of fortune that, if it weren't all true, no one would believe it." The Hollywood Reporter: "The Battered Bastards of Baseball is not just about baseball, it transcends the game."
The Mavericks were a perfect symbol for the '70s. Baseball was the most sacred and formal of mid-20th-century American sports institutions. And in the pre-AIDS, pre-power lunch, post-1960s, the Mavericks—the original Bad News Bears—were an ideal antidote.
The Mavericks had a left-handed catcher, and set brooms on fire after sweeping an opponent in a series. After arguing with an umpire, Peters was ejected from the game, and on the way off the field grabbed first base and locked himself in the locker room. The umps called the cops, who banged on the door. But Peters refused to surrender, and the umpires had to call the game.
Peters, if by default, favored brains over brawn. Among the Mavericks' players was former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, who wrote the groundbreaking insider's look at baseball, Ball Four, and Portland's Larry "Looper" Colton, who later wrote for Willamette Week as well as The New York Times, Esquire and Sports Illustrated and authored the best-selling Goat Brothers and Counting Coup along with founding the local literary festival Wordstock.
"I'd played in the majors, but blew out my arm in a bar brawl in 1968," Colton says. "I was teaching English at Adams High—making $8,000 a year, painting houses on the side. My look had gone from all-American boy to Charlie Manson—clean-cut for the Mavericks. My reputation as a pitcher was so bad I tried out under a false name, Lucas Tanner. I pitched three innings and struck out eight guys.
"Frank gave me top dollar: four hundred bucks a month. I played two weeks, blew my arm out again and gave up the league record for triples. So Frank made me a designated hitter, and right away I got a standup double off the center-field wall. Then the pitcher wheels around and picks me off—you never get picked off [losing] 10-0. I slunk off to the end of the bench, and Ralph Coleman—the Oregon State head baseball coach for a million years—came down and said, 'You stupid motherfucker goddamn fucking idiot,' me thinking, "Sir, do you know you're talking to a public-school teacher?"
Colton recalls Peters as, "Over the top, even for me. He had a love nest in the Portland Towers, where I guess his bed was on a pedestal under a plaque reading 'Stairway to Heaven.'"
In 1975, still managing the Mavericks, Peters opened Peters Habit (soon to be Satan's Disco) on West Burnside Street and 3rd Avenue, where he employed cash-starved Mavericks as bartenders. It was wino wonderland. Across 3rd was Darcelle XV, where stripper boys-turned-girls performed Liza Minnelli standards onstage. Across Burnside was the American Museum, a dancehall and fistfight factory owned by future state representative and former light heavyweight boxer Ron McCarty. Original Jefferson Airplane vocalist Signe Anderson sang with the house band.
Like many great anarchists, Peters was very well-disciplined, a playboy who was rarely not working. During the day, he drove a screaming red Cadillac convertible and a Harley-Davidson chopper sporting leather saddlebacks hand-stitched to hold exactly two blocks of giveaway government cheese.
If you came into Peters' Satan's Disco (a red-walled nightspot hosting the ghosts of the devil and Donna Summer that mimicked, well, hell) at noon, you would discover he'd already put in eight hours scrubbing the kitchen, and he could be drill-sergeant direct.
As a Maverick, Peters is said to have choreographed after-game tavern brawls all over the Northwest, his players stomping the team they had just stomped on the field. But Peters' mid-1970s long suit was reasoning with the unreasonable. A cue-waving, musclebound Martian could promise a bases-loaded homer off the side of Peters' head, but instead of decking him or worse, Peters would fix the interplanetary dirtbag with a calm, steely gaze, and say something philosophical like, "The wizzwort lies down with the packaloomer," and Mr. DB would be sitting not with his face concave in the back of a squad car but peaceful as Cupid at the bar, wallet wide open, downing Satan's Disco vodka zombies as if they were mother's milk.
Two trains running, Peters was trying to run his bars and his baseball team. It couldn't and didn't last. "I got fired the same way I got hired, by Ken Wheeler," Peters said. "He delivered the bad news. Bing and Kurt [Russell] had starred in an Elvis movie, with Kurt as E and Bing as Vernon Presley, and Elvis wanted to invest in the team. So Bing wanted a major-league manager, and I wasn't that guy."
The Mavericks got bought out by the majors the next year for $300,000, and Peters moved on. In 1979, he decided to run for Oregon governor in 1982.
He had a Mercedes and a map, showing the toughest biker shit-kicker bars in the state. The plan was simple: Peters, who had been going to "karate correspondence school" and turned himself into "a lethal weapon," would stop by, barking, "Listen up, assholes," then wax poetic regarding dismantling government, running a 24/7 Miss Oregon pageant in the state rotunda "sort of like a Denny's," and handing out "goodies for all" before firing himself.
Peters raised about $100,000—this after sponsoring a Tom McCall-supported motion, "the assembly of the electors," which allowed independent candidates to get on the ballot. Why else did he run? "To help the poor—and get this: The Oregon Air National Guard had six F-4 Phantom jets. Imagine what you could do with those." He never got enough signatures to get on the ballot.
Peters' next move was the life of banana daiquiris. Denied the F-4s, he returned to the unreal world, opening another Peters Inn in Seattle and the Korova Milk Bar in Portland, Peters' take on A Clockwork Orange where you and your droogs could drop in for a Milako shake and a Special Mission to Mars.
"Merry Christmas to me," Peters says. "I had it made."
Then came a $60,000 tax bill. To come up with what Peters calls "a sea of green," he reinvented himself as an "urban marijuana rancher."
And a pot evangelist. Pedaling his 10-speed to Veritable Quandary, a den of young lawyers, Peters arrived bearing gifts: voluptuous little marijuana plants in a paper bag, to sit at a table and deliver an X-rated rendition of plant sex. Forget about getting high, Peters' new passion was the future of plant replication. By the 21st century, dirt would be obsolete.
Peters had set up "pot ranches" in the attics of friends' houses all over Portland. He rode around on his racing bike with $100 bills tucked in his sock, talking hydroponics to anybody who'd listen, not a care in the world until he got one girlfriend too many.
"The most gorgeous girl in the world, but one day she said, 'Frank, I have terrible news, I'm in love with another woman,'" he recalled. "I met the other girl. She was even more beautiful, so I said, 'Girls, we have the makings of a tragedy. But let's go back to my place and…'" The love triangle got too hot, even for Peters. "One got really pissed and went to the police," he says.
In January 1989, Peters got busted for possession of 800 marijuana plants worth a reported $1 million. He eventually pleaded guilty to four counts of third-degree rape involving a 15-year-old girl, one count of contributing to the delinquency of a 16-year-old girl, and several counts of manufacturing and delivering a controlled substance. Judge Steven Gallagher sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Years later, Gallagher served as a guest karaoke judge at the Grand Cafe, where Peters worked.
Peters says going to prison "simplified" things, "sort of like going on vacation in a concrete box." He was in a cell that he says was "in a better neighborhood with more space and a better view than my last three apartments."
Joking aside, Peters also came to confront his situation. "You really learn about things when you go to prison," he says. "You have to pay attention, because if you don't, you can get hurt. At the time, I don't think I was aware of the consequences."
Peters got his time reduced to 30 months, and after prison he performed 1,000 hours of community service at the Portland Zoo.
"Doing community service was almost its own sentence," he says. "They don't welcome you with open arms. You have to prove yourself all over again. Anyone can go to prison and sit in a cell, but to do 1,000 hours of community service was a real trip. A positive trip."
But sports, not the big house or the elephant house, provided him his true north.
For more than 10 years, Peters was a player-coach on the East Bank Saloon Amateur Athletic Union basketball team, a league of old men—cancer victims, booze hounds, surgeons and a Native American chief among them—who practiced at Portland State University's gym and won several national championships in their age division.
Peters started working at the Grand Cafe in the early 1990s.
The dancehall/bar is on the east side of the Willamette, on a busy Southeast Grand Avenue. Outside at noon, Peters would often march up and down the sidewalk wearing a sandwich board that read, "Free advice with lunch." Inside, he served whole roasted beaver, kangaroo steak, the aforementioned reindeer at Christmas, ostrich hors d'oeuvres and fillet of alligator, and held a "testicle festival."
Peters says walking with the sandwich board was his way of reintroducing himself to the public after prison.
"Some people would drive by and give me the finger, and some would smile and wave," he says. "Over time, they all waved.
"The most difficult thing to win back after you've been to prison is your reputation. You have to earn it back, and it takes time."
Excellent sports violence was shown on TV monitors above the bar, beaming moonlike fluorescence over a forest of booze. In the kitchen, you might find a boar with a bullet through its head that looked more murdered than dead, and in the office a Miss May doing the books.
All those women. Although Peters has often been called a sexist pig or worse, he often put women in management positions. The Mavericks had a female general manager, and the team employed a female umpire. One of his side ventures—a 20-cart hot-dog empire called Judy's Hot Dogs—was run by Judy "until she ran off with a rich guy."
The Battered Bastards of Baseball will again shine a light on Peters, who says he is contemplating a new career in "public speaking." And there is talk that Todd Field, an actor-director who grew up in Portland and was once a bat boy for the Mavericks, is angling to produce the Mavericks' story as a feature film. If so, Peters may be portrayed as a villainous, manipulative Machiavelli.
Peters, who thinks the Mavericks' tale "will be the biggest thing since Bozo the Clown," doesn't seem worried.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he says.
Mark Christensen is a former columnist for Willamette Week. His latest book is Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD and the Politics of Ecstasy.