Kurt Russell Played Minor League Baseball Until an Injury Ended His Career

Today I found out Kurt Russell was a minor league baseball player until an injury ended his career.

While the Russell family is mostly known for their acting, “Baseball is really the family business that nobody knows about because our other business was sort of out there in the public and seen by a lot more people,” said Kurt Russell.

Kurt’s father, Bing Russell, who is perhaps best known for his role as deputy Clem Foster in Bonanza and Robert in The Magnificent Seven, also played in the minor leagues, playing in 1948-1949 for the Carrollton Hornets. Besides acting, Bing Russell went on to own and run the Portland Mavericks baseball team.

Kurt inherited his father’s love for the game of baseball and even though he was already a reasonably successful actor by the age of 20, having appeared in 9 movies and numerous TV shows at the time, he decided to pursue baseball professionally,

I played ball from when I was a kid. It’s just always been in my family. My dad had minor league teams. My great grandfather was a great ballplayer. I played it as long as I could. And I always thought I could do both. I wasn’t really serious about acting — I was serious about baseball. I don’t know if it was more important to me than acting, but I was a young man… and I had geared up to play pro ball from the time I was 13 or 14. The acting was something that just came along. But I made good money acting, so it wasn’t something that I was just going to put aside and pretend it didn’t exist.

He was scouted by the Angels, Cardinals, Twins, and Giants, but the teams were all somewhat reluctant to sign him due to concerns (that ultimately proved valid) that he’d only be a part time player, taking time off on occasion to continue acting.  For instance, in 1971 when he signed with the Angel’s Class A Bend Rainbows club as a switch hitting second basemen, he reported late to spring training as he was still filming Now You See Him, Now You Don’t.

In an interview while playing in AA, Russell stated, “Movies take precedent in the winter and baseball in the summer . . . If I should get hit by a truck and my face was ruined, I will play baseball. If I find out I can’t hit that ball hard enough, I’ll make movies…  Baseball is [a] lot tougher than acting, a much greater challenge. Acting is really very simple. They give you the lines and you go out there and deliver them. Baseball is different.”

After playing for the Rainbows, he went on to play for the Walla Walla Islanders in Washington in 1972 and then the Portland Mavericks (owned by Bing Russell), and finally, in 1973, he played for the AA El Paso Sun Kings.

So was he any good? Former major league baseball player, Tom Trebelhorn, who played with Russell for two seasons in the minor leagues, had this to say, “Kurt could hit — that was his strength. He was a switch hitter and had very good bat accuracy — he could put the bat on the ball… The rest of his game suffered from the fact [that] he couldn’t devote enough time to it.”

While with the Sun Kings, Kurt batted .563 with a 1.526 OPS, technically leading the Texas League in hitting, though in just six games. In what turned out to be his final game with the team, he was attempting to turn a double play when the runner hit him, tearing Russell’s rotator cuff.  Russell described the event as follows,

I used to throw batting practice a lot, and with some injuries on the team, I was playing all the time which I hadn’t been earlier, and with throwing batting practice, I think my arm was somewhat tired. But I got hit high on a double play just as I turned it, and it surprised me because we were way ahead in the game and I thought the runner would turn off to right field. So it was my fault. I kind of lackadaisically came across the base and he hit me high. I didn’t know what happened but the next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back.

It didn’t really hit me how bad it was hurt at the time. I went out that night and played air hockey and I began to feel my arm bothering me. The next day throwing batting practice it didn’t feel right and over the next week it just got worse. Frank Tanana told me, “I think you’ve torn your rotator cuff.” I said, “What are you talking about?” I didn’t know what a rotator cuff was, it wasn’t that well known back then. Frank said, “Yeah, I know what that is. I think you’ve torn it and I think you might be done.” And I was like, yeah, sure.

I went back to L.A. a couple days later and went to the Jobe clinic and the doctor did an arthrogram on me and he looked at the arthrogram and he looked at me and he said, “Aren’t you also an actor?” And I said, Yeah. And he said, “Well, you’re an actor all the time now.”

After the injury, Russell was released from the team on May 17th, 1973, partially so he would be free to go do some acting while he was healing up over the next couple months. “If he can make a motion picture, we’ll let him,” said Bing Russell. “He can’t play for eight weeks, and then Dr. (Robert) Kerlan, the Angels’ team physician, says it’ll be another two weeks for him to get back in shape. That’s 10 weeks, so if he can make a movie, why not?”

He was supposed to return to play for the Sun Kings, but ended up playing back with the Portland Mavericks. During this stint with the Mavericks, besides acting and coming off a major injury, he was also named the VP of the Mavericks, making him the only professional baseball player at the time who was also an executive of a professional baseball team.  Whether it was the injury or just having way too much on his plate between rehabbing, acting, and helping out with the business side of things with the Mavericks, this all resulted in his worst season by far, batting .229 with a .253 SLG in 83 at bats.  Needless to say, this spelled the end of his career as a professional baseball player.

After a brief 1 game, 1 at bat curtain call in 1977 with the Portland Mavericks, Kurt Russell ended up with minor league stats as follows: .292 batting average, .361 on base percentage, 2 home runs, and managed to walk almost as much as he struck out at 38 BB to 41 SO in a total of 356 at bats.  He also made the Northwestern League All-Star team in 1971.  Also, if you discount his post-injury at bats, he had a career minor league batting average of .313.

Bonus Facts:

  • Kurt Russell’s nephew, Matt Franco, was a major league baseball player from 1995 to 2003 and also played in Japan from 2004-2006. While never exactly a great player in the major leagues, Franco does have the distinction of holding the record for most pinch hit walks in a season with 20.
  • The role of Crash Davis in Bull Durham was specifically written with Kurt Russell in mind.  However, despite the fact that Russell was an established actor and also a former professional baseball player, the studio preferred Costner for the role, which he was given, much to the surprise of Russell.  In good humored revenge towards the director, fellow former minor leaguer Ron Shelton, for bowing to the studio’s demand and not giving the role to Russell as was planned, Russell did the following, “I went to Europe on a vacation, having said the script was great, and I came back to discover [Kevin Costner] was doing it. Ronnie got a better deal. So I pulled a practical joke on him that wiped the slate clean for me. I was working on Winter People about 60 miles from where he was doing Bull Durham. I got on the phone, pretended to be [production chief] Mike Medavoy, ordered that Ronnie be pulled off the set, and I told him that the dailies were shit, the movie was shit and Costner was not working, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do’, I told him. ‘Kurt Russell’s 60 miles north of you finishing Winter People tonight. He will be on the set Monday morning’. There was this long pause until Ronnie realized who he was really talking to, and then he said, ‘You son of a bitch!’ I had him going for a few minutes, though.”
  • Despite not getting to star in the movie Bull Durham, Russell still thinks it’s one of the greatest baseball movie ever made, “The problem I’ve generally found with the writing in most sports movies, and it’s why I haven’t done them, for the great and most part, they are written from the fan’s point of view and not written from the player/coach point of view. This is what Ron Shelton and I talked about when we were talking about getting together to do a baseball movie, which he ended up doing called ‘Bull Durham‘. The great thing about baseball, I said to him, is baseball is the only sport played by men for women. All other sports are played by men for men, that I know of. Because baseball players, we’d just as soon have 50,000 women in the stands. We couldn’t care less if there was a guy there. But football is a gladiator game; they want men [cheering in the stands]. Baseball players like to look good in their uniforms and run around the bases and say, ‘How’s it going?’ They want to be cool. That’s what they’re about. And Ron wrote it from, which in that regard was the point of view that you really need to understand baseball, the point of view of the woman who is with the ballplayer. That’s the point of view to write a baseball story, which is why Bull Durham, I think, is one of the best made.”
  • Kurt Russell auditioned for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars but obviously was not selected.  You can watch his audition video here: Kurt Russell Star Wars Audition
  • It turns out, it’s not just normal people who think the Academy Awards are ridiculous, Russell does too.  As he stated in an interview, “At times I take great pride in it (being a member of the Hollywood community). But most of the time, I’m completely ashamed of it, especially on the night of the Academy Awards. It’s the one night of the year where I just want to crawl in a hole and hide. It’s a bit like standing shoulder-to-shoulder with assholes. Mike Nichols and I were talking about politics once and he said, ‘The thing is, you can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with assholes.’ And he’s right. I can’t. What’s interesting about Oscar night is it’s a joke-it’s about how bad everything is. Everybody knows that that’s the night to applaud Hollywood in all its horror.”
  • Russell isn’t just harsh on the Hollywood “culture”, but also those who consider it artistic, “To go on about acting as art is ridiculous. If it is an art, then it’s a very low form. You don’t have to be gifted just to hit a mark and say a line. And as far as I’m concerned, hitting my marks and knowing my lines is 90% of the job. I’m always criticized for talking like that. Maybe the reason I do it is that I never got the chance to develop a real desire to act. I was acting by the time I was 9 so it seemed like a natural thing to do. Anyone who finds acting difficult just shouldn’t be doing it.”
  • While the credits stated that George P. Cosmatos was the director of one of Russell’s (and Val Kilmer’s) best films, Tombstone, in fact, Kurt Russell was the director and Cosmatos was a “ghost director”.  Russell revealed that little tidbit after Cosmatos died in 2005, at which point Russel was no longer bound by his promise to keep that secret as long as Cosmatos was still alive.
  • George Cosmatos also ghost directed Rambo: First Blood Part II.
  • Both Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) and Kurt Russell graduated from Thousand Oaks High School in California.
  • Bing Russell as the owner of Portland Mavericks has the distinction of hiring the first female general manager as well as the first Asian American general manager in professional baseball history.
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  • As you mentioned Kurt’s nephew Matt Franco played in the big leagues and was a good utility player. Some of his best years were with the late 90s Mets. I went to a lot of games back then as a young teenager and would get autographs before and after the games. I always had markers and pens with me at the game. At the old Shea Stadium once you were in the field level you had full access to all of the box seats. If you showed up early for BP you were allowed into the field level section with any ticket. I would find an empty seat and sit in it and if the ticket holders came for their seats I would just move to the next one. So that is how I ended up sitting in box seats that night. I was walking behind home plate and saw Kurt Russel at the game mulling around. I approached him and asked for an autograph and he looked at me and said “No.”