Life was one big adventure for this maverick
Bing Russell died recently at age 75, according to the news. But his last 'official' age was 62.
Russell was 26 when he first talked his way into movies, 44 when he was on television's 'Bonanza' and 53 during the years he owned the Portland Mavericks, the entertaining Class A baseball team that played at Civic Stadium (now PGE Park) in the 1970s.
His age always had to add up to eight, his lucky number.
Some years ago, Bing called me late at night from a bar somewhere in L.A. to report, 'I just tried out 62, and it worked!'
So, Bing was 62 from then on. He died before getting comfortable with 71.
When Charlie Faust, my son, was in his 30s, Bing advised him to 'pick some age, say 33, and stay with it until you know enough about being 33. Charlie, it's better to know a lot about being 33 than a little about 30, 31, 32 and the rest.'
That was just one of thousands of theories generated by a brilliant and creative mind that guided Bing Russell on his own path through a world of people who were all strangely different.
He tipped service station hands. He ate dessert before the main course. He alternately starved himself to 180 pounds and gorged himself back to 220. He wouldn't have a credit card Ñ 'that's not paying your way' ÑÊ so he carried wads of hundred-dollar bills.
• • •
Life was a series of competitions, fought to the end.
Bing timed himself hurtling his car down an abandoned winding dirt road in the L.A. hills (I clung to the dashboard as an inadvertent passenger on one late-night record try).
Bing went on a five-year binge of golf, trying to shoot his age. When local businessman Dennis Murphy beat him on a Portland course, Bing refused to accept the result until they played on Bing's home course. So he dragged Murphy directly from the 19th hole to the airport and onto a next-morning rematch at Bing's home course É in Rangeley, Maine.
Bing sponsored an annual banquet for his family at which he announced the family's Man of the Year (one year it was his 5-year-old granddaughter) and then proclaimed the complete order of finish through last place. Even Boozer, the family dog, was ranked. When Goldie Hawn, son Kurt's longtime partner, asked why she hadn't been ranked, Bing told her she wasn't married to Kurt, 'but if you were, you would have been 15th.'
The world was an audience for Russellian theater. Bing would break into song Ñ in perfect pitch Ñ at a restaurant. He turned lineups of strangers at bars into semicircles around his stool. 'So, John Wayne and I É'
When he discovered on arriving in Portland that he'd brought two left boots, he convinced the sales clerk at the Portland Outdoor Store that he wanted 'another pair just like these.' The clerk brought out two pairs. 'What's that weird pair with the toes pointing in opposite directions?' Bing said. He tried them on. 'Hey,' he said, 'these feel better than real boots. I'll take 'em.'
• • •
The lucky number eight determined his asking price for the Mavericks, $206,000, when the Pacific Coast League drafted his Portland territory.
Baseball thought he was insane; the figure was more than 20 times as much as any league had ever paid to draft the territory of a lower-classification league.
And then Bing took the stand in the arbitration proceedings. He was Jimmy Stewart playing 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' This was not about money, he said, it was about 'the soul of a city.' The testimony ended with Major League Baseball's lawyer answering 'God, no,' when he was asked, 'Any more questions?' Bing got the $206,000.
Afterward, on the way home, we were pulled over for speeding. Bing turned on the charm, and the patrolman soon agreed to tear up the ticket, that is, until Bing saw on the ticket that the officer's badge number was 206. Bing refused to part with it and happily paid the fine.
Bing practiced and admired total individualism. His handwriting was his own system, a high-speed scratching on paper best understood by calling him to find out what he wrote.
In his freshman year at Dartmouth, a professor failed to decipher Bing's test paper and so graded him down. Bing knocked on the door of the college president's home and invited himself to dinner, at which he convinced the president that the college would be 'nuts' not to allow him to dictate his answers to someone who wrote more conventionally.
When 8-year-old Kurt sold tickets for neighborhood kids to watch him jump off the roof, mother Lou asked Bing to 'please do something.' Bing did. He bought two tickets, one for himself and one for an orthopedic surgeon.
• • •
No one had a bigger laugh, or a sense of humor that was harder to define. He laughed at the credits to Kurt's movie 'Used Cars' (I didn't ask why), but he was silent through some of the audience's big laughs. Harry Johnson, a Portland dentist and former University of Oregon football player, once told him an amusing story; Bing stared at him. Harry sighed and said, 'Well, I thought it was funny.' Bing howled with laughter, saying, 'Never tell it any different!'
He could be a bitter foe, but his intensity in battling those foes was more than matched by his love of his family and his loyalty to a circle of friends. You never had to ask for favors; I just mentioned that my dad was interested in going to spring training, and in a few days Bing had wrangled him passes to the best games.
That loyalty went beyond humans, too. When a blind dog appeared on the set of 'The Magnificent Seven,' Bing took it home and rearranged the house to keep it from running into the furniture. When Boozer's biting became a neighborhood menace, Bing had his teeth pulled, and Boozer lived on.
When Bing's beloved Camaro coupe finally gave out and had to be sold for scrap, he sent his friends pictures of its last day.
Years ago, Bing laid out a 'Monopoly board' in his mind, a list of the things he had to do to win the game of life. He filled out the board in Portland one day when he gave his wife, Lou, a glider ride with himself at the controls.
As for Bing's last day, it went quietly, unlike the thousands before it. When it ended, he had a smile on his face Ñand a legacy of smiles for those who loved him.
Jack Faust is a member of the Portland law firm of Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt and a former host of 'Town Hall' on KATU (2). He was Bing Russell's friend, admirer, lawyer and a member of the audience.