Baseball changed forever in 1947 when Jackie Robinson stepped up to bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues.
HBO’s latest film, “Soul of the Game,” explores how he came to be there. It is set two years before Robinson’s landmark achievement and explores the competition between Negro League greats Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and rookie Robinson to be the first to cross baseball’s color line.
Delroy Lindo (“Get Shorty”) stars as Paige, the Kansas City Monarchs’ ace pitcher; Mykelti Williamson (“Forrest Gump”) is Gibson, the Homestead Grays’ catcher and power hitter, and Blair Underwood (“L.A. Law”) plays Robinson.
Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan read several projects dealing with baseball’s Negro Leagues but found that David Himmelstein’s script offered the best approach to this watershed event in American history.
“It found the right time frame for the story because  was the year Jackie was a rookie [for the Monarchs],” he says. “It brought those three men into the same arena at that most crucial moment and really got us into the race to be first. When Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey announced he was starting the Brown Dodgers, it didn’t take Satchel long to figure out that was just a ruse, there was something else going on.”
Not only were Paige and Gibson best friends, they were the Negro League’s superstars. “You’ve got to understand how many tickets they sold,” Sullivan stresses. “I think that Branch Rickey, while he was obviously a man of some vision, was a businessman. He was a baseball man. He wanted Negro players because he wanted to win and sell tickets. Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were the reason that businessmen in baseball realized you could sell tickets with these baseball players, at a time when baseball was really struggling.”
Williamson had very little to work with when he began researching Gibson, whose career was cut short when he died of a brain tumor at the age of 35, three months before Robinson joined the Dodgers.
“I didn’t know what his gait was like or what he sounded like,” Williamson says. He studied photographs of Gibson and “had a couple of Negro League players take me under their wing.” After each take, Williamson would check with the veterans to make sure he was capturing Gibson’s essence.
“I would look beyond the camera and they would shake their head ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I would rather go through the headache of having to do it over than have this film misrepresent Mr. Gibson, because he has got living relatives. Halfway through production I got a chance to meet Josh Gibson Jr. He told me he was looking forward to seeing this. Talk about the pressure on. ...”
Williamson says “Soul of the Game” gives Gibson, the only man to hit a home run entirely out of Yankee Stadium, his just due. “Josh had a couple of dilemmas,” Williamson says. “One was racism, and the other was he had a brain tumor he was dying from. One of the things he did to numb the pain was drink. It meant more to him to just hold on and drink the pain away, but he wouldn’t talk about it to his dearest friend, Satchel Paige, and the woman he had fallen in love with, because he feared this information leaking out and what it would do to him.”
Gibson, Williamson says, was angry and frustrated about being passed over for the majors and by the fact he was “much better than Joe DiMaggio, than a lot of those other major league players, and that they picked Jackie Robinson, who wasn’t great but was intelligent. He was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and allow the major league players to dump on him and insult him without retaliation. Satchel or Josh would not put up with that.”
(At the age of 42, Paige became the eldest major league rookie when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948.)
Though Underwood was aware Robinson broke the color barrier, he knew very little about the man behind the image. The actor got the greatest insight into his character from Ruby Dee, who starred with Robinson in the 1950 biopic “The Jackie Robinson Story.”
“She found it hard to believe the image that was presented was the man she worked with,” says Underwood, whose Uncle Eli played on several Negro League teams. “He was decent and hard-working, but also a man with a temper that he had to learn to control. I didn’t know that. I remember hearing he had to endure a lot of mess from people, but the fact is he didn’t always want to turn the other cheek.”
Robinson, Underwood says, wasn’t in awe of Paige or Gibson. “He was there to do a job,” Underwood says. “He was kind of an outsider in the Negro Leagues. He was college educated. He was the first four-letter man, black or white, at UCLA. When Branch Rickey approached him about moving to the Dodgers, he had to keep it a secret for awhile. But it wasn’t that difficult to keep a secret among the players because he was never totally in that inner circle. So that just speaks to his alienation.”
Director Sullivan hopes the film will make viewers realize the Negro League was “a great thing unto itself. These men didn’t spend all of their lives aspiring to become major league baseball players. They were major league baseball players. They had great fans. They were paid lots of money. I hope the movie celebrates what was there and not just what they didn’t have.”
“Soul of the Game” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.