"After all them years, all that double talk — the white man's finally moving in," says one Negro League barnstormer to another, after a teammate gets a call from the Brooklyn Dodgers about a historic opportunity.
The scene in question sounds like something out of the new Jackie Robinson biopic "42," opening today. But it's from "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings," one of a handful of baseball films worth talking about for historical reasons (though it's mostly genial fabrication) as well as movie reasons.
Until this week, I hadn't seen director John Badham's 1976 debut feature since my cousin and I caught it in its initial run at the Chicago Theatre, back when an out-of-towner's trip to the Loop meant dinner at The Berghoff followed by a movie a few blocks north. Based on the novel by William Brashler, the film starred Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor, and was set in 1939, with Williams' character (the fictional Bingo Long) based loosely on Satchel Paige, and the role taken by Jones inspired by Josh Gibson.
We're not talking about a documentary here. "Bingo Long," like "A League of Their Own" 16 years later, fancifully locates its fictional characters in a real time and place but wings it from there, veering from broad comedy to heartfelt drama. Jones is the heart and soul of the picture, which he shot in Georgia a year before voicing Darth Vader in "Star Wars." A few years later, Jones returned to the world of baseball for his greatest stage role: Troy Maxson, the fictional one-time Negro League slugger of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Fences."
Badham's feature film career was launched by "Bingo Long," and quickly cemented by the following year's "Saturday Night Fever." He wasn't the first choice for the Negro League tale. A fellow named Spielberg liked the project, but a film called "Jaws" came along and upped his fee considerably, up and out of the budgetary range of "Bingo Long."
It's not a perfect film, and the tone wobbles this way and that. The jokes aren't up to the abilities of the ensemble. But with "42" about to open, it's interesting to revisit "Bingo Long" simply because it tells so many stories within its main story, while sneaking in a little truth. Any baseball film of any value does that, at least; the sport is too innately democratic for it to be otherwise.
The sport has inspired a few good movies, though of course we could always use more. I like "Bull Durham" an awful lot, for a lot of reasons. And in an entirely different vein, I love the Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck baseball drama "Sugar," which never found the audience it deserved. No surprise, I suppose. It's not a rousing good-news story; rather, it's a gentle, incisive portrait of a Dominican Republic teenager brought up to the U.S. to join a major league farm team in Iowa. We love tales of winners, of long odds vanquished. "Sugar" concerns a different sort of trajectory — not tragic, not melodramatic, but honest and moving.
At the end of "Bingo Long," Jones says to Williams: "That's the end of Negro ball." Their teammate, "Esquire" Joe Callaway (Stan Shaw), has been called up to the majors. The film confines this supporting character to the sidelines, which is where the protagonist of "Sugar" must negotiate a life for himself in America. He's there — he's arrived — but he's not a member of the club. The playing field isn't level. And it isn't easy.
This is why baseball movies, the interesting ones, work, whether they're comedies or dramas or a little of both: They show us life off the field, and what it takes, what it costs, to even get close to a dream of glory.
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