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Kicking back with Kurt

Whether it's been leaving acting for a stint as a second baseman or taking on roles that would one day become iconic, actor Kurt Russell has always been a maverick.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

(continued from page 2)

Russell was good enough to be signed by the California Angels and played second base on its minor-league Double-A squad between 1970 and early 1973 before a shoulder injury forced him to quit right as he was making the move to the majors. One season he hit .563 to lead the league in hitting.

"I could move runners," Russell says. "When it came to hitting I was professional. I was a good hitter, and out in the field my range was real good to my left, OK to my right. I knew the game, inside and out."

During his baseball tenure, he continued to take occasional acting roles as his team schedule would allow. When asked to think back to being 20 years old and to compare the two pursuits, he ponders for a minute before responding.

"Professional sports is a much more difficult world, a much more black-and-white world. It's physically, emotionally and in all ways a tougher world," Russell says, "And I was better in that world than I am in this world [of acting] because it was simpler. I didn't mind the rules because I knew the rules."

That's not to say that baseball was easy, Russell insists, and that's not to imply that acting is a piece of cake all the time, either. "You know, when I was playing baseball, I had players look at my acting career and say, 'How much money do you make doing that?' or 'I bet you get to meet a lot of girls, pretty girls…can you get me into that? Can you get me a job acting?' Shit," Russell says, shaking his head. "To give you an idea of how much simpler that world is, there was nobody, nobody, from the world of acting who would have ever said to me, 'Can you get me into that, into that world of baseball?' because it was understood. Man, nobody can do anything for you in that world! If you can play, you play. You have the skill or you don't. But no one has that same regard for acting."

Even after the shoulder injury, Russell continued to mingle the two careers a bit as did his father. In 1973, besides their respective acting jobs, the two bought the Portland Mavericks, the only independent baseball team in the Class A Northwest League.

In many regards, the father/son owners of the Mavericks were, well, maverick. Portland was the first team in professional baseball to ever hire a female general manager and, sometime later, the first team in professional baseball to hire an Asian-American general manager.

This wasn't a soft, on-the-side endeavor for either of the Russell men, however. Kurt actually played for a while until the shoulder gave out, the team set a record one season for the highest attendance in minor-league history, and, that same season, the Mavericks won the pennant. And, in addition to their progressive hiring practices, the Russells opened tryouts every June to anyone who showed up, from former major league players to those who'd simply dreamt of telling their friends they'd once tried out for a professional team.

It's his natural athleticism and knowledge of team sports, Kurt Russell says, that made his portrayal as single-minded hockey coach Herb Brooks in 2004's Miracle, which chronicled the American Olympic hockey team's surprising win over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Games, so believable and one of his favorite roles to date. He enthusiastically recounts how Olympic athletes report watching the movie the night before competition and of big league sports teams watching the movie for inspiration.

That Russell takes pride in his athleticism and dual career is obvious. If, at 5 feet 11 inches, he isn't built like a giant, there's a natural athlete's breadth to his shoulders, a ballplayer's bearing to his stance, and a bit of a swagger to his walk, and he handles himself with the surety and cockiness of the proverbial jock.

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