Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and we celebrate it by continually producing movies that highlight its mythic status. From Pride of the Yankees (1942) to Field of Dreams (1989) baseball movies prove that there is indeed an intimate history between the sport and this country and a certain legendary-ness to a group of guys hitting balls with bats and racing around a huge diamond.
Sadly, baseball, like most other activities at some point in United States history, was also a segregated spectacle. So what is the best way (cinematically) to deal with this divided time in sports history? Why, with comedy, of course!
What do you get when you put Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor on a baseball team in 1930s America? The answer: Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). I haven’t seen a title like that since Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965).
Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, The Empire Strikes Back) stars as Bingo Long, an enterprising, good-hearted ball player stuck in the segregated Negro Leagues under the oppressive thumb of greedy team owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross). Sick of himself and the team being underpaid and treated poorly, Bingo starts to hatch a plan to start his own barnstorming independent team of all-star African American players. James Earl Jones (Coming to America, The Hunt for Red October) is the power hitting Leon Carter, Bingo’s stoic ally and partner when they hit the road. They assemble a team of great athletes who are sick of their crappy team owners. One of the players they manage to pick up is Charlie Snow aka “Carlos Nevada” aka “Chief Takahoma”, played by comedian Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Superman III). Other players can outrun speeding baseballs and hit home-run after home-run. The film also makes several allusions to athletes like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and others with its fictional lineup.
This being the first directorial outing by John Badham (Short Circuit, Stakeout), the film needed a strong cast. And the cast is great. Williams is as charismatic and sharp as ever, Jones delivers a strong performance (as if he could deliver anything but), and Pryor is funny as the guy trying to get into the white leagues by passing himself off as Cuban (a hilarious insight and statement in itself). The ensemble baseball team of entrepreneurs is very talented and fun to watch. Stan Shaw and Tony Burton and all the rest are well cast. Ted Ross is also fine as the mean, cigar-chomping, hearse-driving Sallison Potter and Mabel King is great as team owner “big” Bertha Dewitt.
Once the All-Stars successfully cut themselves off from their former owners they drive from town to town dancing down main street to advertise their arrival in the hopes of playing the local teams and getting paid. This goes well and everyone on the field and in the stands is having a great time, but then Sallison Potter hears of their success and will not have it. Potter starts paying people off so no one in the Negro Leagues will play them. He also has his thugs rob and terrorize Bingo’s team members. Running out of options, and low on dough, Bingo and Leon decide the only thing left to do is to play the white baseball teams.
The problem is that the good, white, Southern folk who fill the stands on hot summer days in the 1930s are not too thrilled to see black athletes screw around on the field. At first the All-Stars find themselves getting ugly stares and even boos when they make a good play. Then Bingo realizes what the white games are missing: some informality. In the Negro Leagues they would laugh and joke and have fun with the opposing team. The small-time white baseball players are too stiff and uncomfortable with their opponents so Bingo starts to lighten everybody up by adding a healthy dose of clowning to the white diamonds. It is not enough to be as good or even better than the white teams, the All-Stars have to make a show of it. One does not simply catch a fly ball. One piggybacks up on a taller player to catch it or slides between someone’s legs to catch it. They prove their athletic prowess as well as good spirits and sense of humor and soon the conservative folks up in the stands are having as much fun as the All-Stars.
After several games, Potter’s tampering goes too far. They lose all their money, lose one of their cars (full of equipment), lose several team members, and have to pick potatoes to earn cash. Bingo tries to keep everyone together, but perhaps his ideals are just too big and unrealistic for anyone else to see. With nothing left to lose, Bingo challenges Potter to a game: his team vs. Potter’s. If the All-Stars win they retain their independence, but if Potter wins everyone goes back to their own teams. With everything riding on this one big game and Leon Carter nowhere to be found the stakes are high…but if you’re a regular filmgoer than you already know that somehow things will work out for the best.
I like the old cars and charismatic performances. I like how it interacts with history and how they recreate the look and feel of the old south. I like the energy and humor and fun it looks like everyone is having. Add all this to the fact that the story is pretty good and that makes for a pretty entertaining and lovable movie that unfortunately seems to get overlooked these days. If you like sports movies and think you’ve seen them all then check this one out.
Top 10 Reasons to See Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings
1. Just look at that title. Marvelous. Ooh! And an ampersand too!
2. See a young, svelte, bat-swinging James Earl Jones—pre-Vader voice.
3. Oh, so you like period baseball flicks like A League of Their Own and The Natural too? Watch this one.
4. It’s a refreshingly unpretentious outing to the ballpark. I love Field of Dreams, but movies like Bingo Long and the original Bad News Bears aren’t nearly as full of themselves.
5. Car chases, shootouts, sucker punches, dwarfs, amputees, classic cars, and great baseball plays. (Sorry, I guess the dwarfs and amputees thing is just the Jodorowsky fan in me talking).
6. Mabel King keeps her large ridiculous hats on even in a sauna.
7. Richard Pryor pretending to be Cuban…and Navajo.
8. Although it’s a bit screwball, it is still grounded in its historical setting and has a genuine affection for the game.
9. It’s such an American movie! Baseball, overcoming the odds, AND entrepreneurship?!
10. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones talking to each other. Seriously. Two of the best and most recognizable voices in conversation? Hurry, the credits are coming. Give them something else to read!
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 21, 2011