Despite the overwhelming canon of American baseball films, the cinema has treated its Black baseball players with only slightly more regard than real life players were treated in the real life sport. To this day, Berry Gordy’s Motown Productions, the epicentre of the ’70s “crossover movie”, remains the only production house to bring the Negro Leagues to cinema screens.
Warning: Contains spoilers about The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings and several other movies.
You can count the number of films set within the Negro Leagues on the fingers of a catcher’s mitt, even though Black baseball existed in segregated America as early as the 1850s. The 1880s saw professional clubs begin to form and dozens barnstormed the country and into South America all year round throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. Only after the integration of Black players into Major League Baseball in the 1940s did the Negro Leagues begin to fade, consigned in the ‘50s to the list of embarrassments Jim Crow laws and unspoken “Gentlemen’s Agreements” left behind. Many players faded with them.
Sports writers’ reports in December 2020 debated an age-old controversy. 100 years after the fact, the seven official Negro Major Leagues running between 1920 and 1948 have finally been recognised at “Major League” status. Yet scant statistics, painstakingly collated by historians from reports in the Black press, cannot categorically determine whether Josh Gibson was the better player compared against Babe Ruth. History cannot even agree on who the first Black player to join a Major League team was. In The Jackie Robinson Story (Alfred E. Green, 1950) the star, already a civil rights legend court martialled for refusing to sit at the back of the bus, plays himself. Reports of players masquerading as South or Native American, ethnicities not considered “Black”, go back well before Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Richard Pryor, whose character wants to break into the Majors as a Cuban, says to a team-mate in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (John Badham, 1976), “There’s dudes down there Blacker than you!”
Television has chronicled the history of Negro League superstars better than cinema. The breakthrough documentary Only the Ball Was White (Ken Solarz, 1980), inspired by Oscar Peterson’s book, the first significant text on the leagues, was followed by Don’t Look Back: The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige (Richard A. Colla, 1981) starring Louis Gossett Jr. as the undisputed champion pitcher. 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013) for the most part simply retells The Jackie Robinson Story following many of the same beats, whereas HBO’s Soul of The Game (Kevin Rodney Sullivan, 1996) explores the dynamics between Paige, Gibson, and Robinson. Arguably, though, all three Robinson films are as much about Branch Rickey, President and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his criteria for the Black player with the “right background”, as they are about the Negro Leagues.
In Solarz’s film, players talk about the impact being “strong enough to not fight back” had on Robinson’s mental health. Paige, who spent six years in Reform School, was encouraged to make baseball his living by his coach and persisted until he became the “oldest rookie in the Major Leagues”. Paige appeared on cinema screens before Robinson, as one of the real Indians in The Kid from Cleveland (Herbert Kline, 1949). In Life (Ted Demme, 1999) the wrongfully convicted Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence hope to ride the coattails of their yard team’s star player out of prison when he is picked by a White scout for the Negro Leagues. Josh Gibson, who died of a stroke at 35, never got to play in the Majors at all.
“Then when they get about 45 like Aunt Bunny, they be havin’ a Billy Dee Williams’ look.” Eddie Murphy Delirious (Bruce Gowers, 1983) pays tribute to a star admired from first appearance in Lady Sings the Blues (Sidney J. Furie, 1972). Most of Murphy’s costumes in Harlem Nights (Eddie Murphy, 1989) seem influenced by this epiphanic moment in the blockbuster comic’s young life. Diana Ross may have been the natural front-and-centre of Motown Productions from its first film, the unreleased short The Supremes In the Orient (Humphrey Hinshelwood, 1966), but by her side in her first two features is Williams. Made-for-TV biopic Scott Joplin (Jeremy Paul Kagan, 1977), sealed him a higher total of Motown movies than any other star. His smooth political activist in Mahogany (Berry Gordy, 1975) seems a warm-up to his Bingo Long, leader of a breakaway band of athletes rejecting their own exploitative Black team owner, “Sallie” Potter (Ted Ross).
Bingo Long and Harlem Nights share a lot of “Big Mama” humour, but Mabel King’s Bertha Dewitt, owner of the Charcoal Kings and Sallie’s nemesis, is shrewd. She is also a vocal advocate of the game, unlike Margaret Whitton’s “ex-showgirl wife of Indians owner Donald Phelps” in Major League (David S. Ward, 1989), who runs the fictionalised Cleveland team into the ground. Bingo Long is a show-boater, like Satchel Paige or Sidney Poitier’s Inman Jackson in Go, Man, Go! (James Wong Howe, 1954), centre for the Harlem Globetrotters whose segregation in basketball echoes the experience of Negro Leaguers the Indianapolis Clowns, players of comedic exhibition games until the 1980s. The unchallenged male lead of Motown’s prestige line of Black led pictures, Williams became Lando Calrissian just as his mentor was directing Pryor, his own long-term collaborator, in the third highest grossing film of that year, Stir Crazy (Sidney Poitier, 1980).
A knockabout comedy absolutely about Black joy, Bingo Long was the last of Motown’s theatrical features on serious Black history themes. Universal’s smash hit Car Wash (Michael Schultz, 1976) exploded the crossover picture, generating a Grammy-winning soundtrack. Motown’s Big Time (Andrew Georgias, 1977) was a Blaxploitation vehicle for Smokey Robinson, and the discotheque set Thank God It’s Friday! (Robert Klane, 1978), a partnership with Casablanca Records, promoted Donna Summer singles and a cameo by The Commodores. Progenitor of the late 20th century campus election movie, Almost Summer (Martin Davidson, 1978), has a cult Mike Love soundtrack and the hilarious first leading role for Bruno Kirby, but for decades has only been available as a fan-restored bootleg. Five years after Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (Michael Schultz, 1985) he sold Motown Productions to his right-hand woman in Los Angeles, award-winning producer Suzanne de Passe, who rebranded the company in her own name.
“I still refer to some of my works as ‘movies’. ‘Films’ always felt a bit grand for many of them”, says director John Badham reflecting on his catalogue. His interest in filmmaking piqued by time spent on set with his sister Mary, Oscar nominated as Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), Badham began at Universal in episodic television before directing several acclaimed movies of the week, including the influential The Gun (1974). As much an actor’s director as a director’s director he writes candidly in his essential books I’ll Be in My Trailer and On Directing about learning his craft the hard way, of inadvertently upsetting Richard Pryor and learning the benefits of on-set improvisation from Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones. Joining Bingo Long at late notice after Mark Rydell dropped out and Steven Spielberg became unavailable, Badham, a lover of the “ebullient style” of Negro League players, understood his movie’s background.
Bruce Cook reported in July 1976’s American Film some of the many changes made to the story along the way through shooting and then in editing. In his 1993 introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of his novel, Bingo Long author William Brashler graciously accepts the swap of Bingo’s position from catcher to pitcher due to Billy Dee Williams’ reluctance to wear a mask for a whole film. Screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who created Richard Pryor’s character, credited Badham highly for getting the film completed at all, shooting largely on location with a 39-day schedule and legal disputes with local property owners. The writers themselves had been very reluctant to work on the picture, but Rob Cohen, Vice-President of Motown’s film and TV arm kept offering them more money. “That’s Hollywood for you,” said Robbins. “You keep saying no, but eventually your wife looks at you like you’re crazy and makes you do it”.
Two days ahead of the film’s July 16th opening, Variety reported on the film’s first run booking at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. While Bingo Long became only the second film to run at the iconic music hall, further down 125th Street at the Loew’s Victoria the “Double Diana-Mite!” double feature of Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany played late-nite alongside Leadbelly (Gordon Parks, 1974) and Sparkle (Sam O’Steen, 1976). Grossing $33 million from a $9 million budget, Bingo Long was considered a financial success. After heavy involvement in pre-production, John Badham left Motown’s most extravagant show when a 33-year-old Ross dreamt she should play a 12-year-old Dorothy in The Wiz (Sidney Lumet, 1978) and convinced Gordy of the same.
Replacing yet another director at short notice, Saturday Night Fever (1977) sent Badham to the A-list, and a string of hits across a range of genres, including three “fear of technology” classics of the 1980s, starting with Blue Thunder (1983). Making only one return to sports with American Flyers (1985), after art heist thriller Incognito (1997) he returned to television films and episodic. Casting himself in a small role in The Last Debate (2000) the fun he has with his craft is evident, and he passes his veteran skill to new generations as tenured professor of film at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.
Over three unrelated films James Earl Jones becomes an emblem of Blackness in cinema baseball. To the role of Leon Carter, Bingo’s catcher, he brings a gleam of the dangerous energy he brought to his portrayal of Jack Johnson, first Black heavyweight champion boxer of the world, in The Great White Hope (Martin Ritt, 1970). Carter plants notions of “seizing the means of production” in Bingo’s idealistic mind. Yet in Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989), Jones plays a former Black radical, a character created to stand in for the novel’s use of J.D. Salinger, from whom the producers feared litigation. Critics argue that Jones’ delivering of the famous “people will come” speech, evoking the past era of baseball as “when everything was good” erases baseball’s racist history like the ultimate White father/son baseball fable The Natural (Barry Levinson, 1984). The Sandlot (David Mickey Evans, 1993), casts Jones as a blind junk yard owner who surprises the kids with tales of playing Babe Ruth in the off-season before integration.
The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976) spawned two sequels, a TV show, and a reboot, yet no further tales of the Negro Leagues have been told in cinema. Aside from a brief shot of a Black bat girl in A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992), the most valuable Black players in movie baseball remained for some time Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) who had converted from Voodoo to Buddhism by Major League II (David S. Ward, 1994) where Willie Mays Hayes was converted from Wesley Snipes to Omar Epps. Snipes had been promoted to the ranks of selfish $40 million San Francisco outfielder Bobby Rayburn in The Fan (Tony Scott, 1996), terrorised by toxic father and failed salesman Robert De Niro when he doesn’t show appropriate gratitude for the murder of his South American team-mate and rival Juan Primo (Benicio Del Toro). Since Bernie Mac played 47-year-old MLB record-chaser Mr. 3000 (Charles Stone III, 2004) Blackness in baseball has been the bitter memories of a faded Negro League player boasting that he “hit seven homers off of Satchel Paige” in Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016), the adaptation of August Wilson’s 1985 play in which Washington takes a role originated on stage by Jones.
The 2020s are set to be the greatest age of Black led cinema, and new generations of historians and documentarians have taken up the mantle of rediscovering and reclaiming the stories of the Negro Leagues. Audiences can hope that a filmmaker the calibre of Regina King, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Shaka King or Ryan Coogler might give us the Josh Gibson biopic or the new imaginings of the Negro Leagues the cinema of baseball demands. Until then, viva The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, one of the most singular and important sports films of all time.
© 2021 Rebecca Nicole Williams. All rights reserved.