reflects America better than baseball. So little
surprise that baseball's greatest embarrassment
parallels America's biggest blemish--outright racism.
Both baseball and America
are struggling to overcome the blight of racism,
now lingering in far more subtle and residual fashion,
but until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier
in 1947 baseball blithely observed its "separate
and unequal" stance. The owners and Commissioner
Kenesaw Mountain Landis blocked the Pittsburgh Pirates
from signing Negro Leagues superstar Josh Gibson
to a contract in 1943 with Landis making it perfectly
clear that NO black player would ever play in the
major leagues while he was in control.
Hopes for change occurred
near the end of World War II when new Commissioner
Happy Chandler took over and had a more liberal
view, notably saying, "I believe that if a black
boy can make it on Okinawa, he'd make it in baseball."
Huge understatement! Teams
from the Negro Leagues had been playing barnstorming
games with Major League teams for years, and had
won more than they lost. After one exhibition game,
Dizzy Dean proclaimed that his St. Louis Cardinals
team could wrap up the National League pennant by
July 4 and go fishing if they had Josh Gibson and
Satchel Paige on the team.
So one of baseball's biggest
regrets is that it paralleled the nation's racist
attitudes and took so long to integrate the sport,
so that the very best teams could be assembled.
Recognition for the great athletes from the old
Negro Leagues has risen in recent years with an
additional wing at Baseball's Hall of Fame at Cooperstown,
but far less is widely chronicled and known about
these players. Accurate statistics weren't recorded,
less baseball lore is written, and far less media
attention is given the Negro League. And that includes
Numerous baseball films
exist, but not until HBO put out Soul of the
Game in 1996 as a made-for-TV work, had
a film dealt with the Negro Leagues seriously. Such
a film was long overdue, and director Kevin Rodney
Sullivan does a credible job re-creating the atmosphere
of the Negro Leagues and putting a face on the historic
signing of Jackie Robinson.
No work of art, the film
remains largely a pedestrian re-telling of baseball
history that you can read about or learn more details
from Ken Burns' very thorough Baseball series. Sullivan
even takes advantage of archive footage in the beginning
to lend credibility. The story centers on the three
Negro League players who are the top candidates
to break the racial barrier—legendary 40+-year-old
pitcher Satchel Paige (Delroy Lindo), home run king
Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson), and rookie Jackie
Robinson (Blair Underwood).
Mistakenly, the film goes
for a nonsensical bookend piece that comes across
lamely by beginning and ending with a first "unnamed"
black player, but ... hey (or "say hey"), it's in
the 1954 New York Giant locker room, and the player's
number is 24. Why keep Willie Mays’ name a "secret"
for the "climatic" ending, and what's the deal with
introducing a young, hero worshipping “Willie” to
Satchel and Josh in 1945? These sequences to achieve
an artistic framing devise come off awkwardly and
impose a smaltzy ending to a decent story.
The same goes for a game
that is built up with far more significance than
is real. A game between the Negro League and Major
League All Stars is set up to showcase Josh Gibson
and Satchel Paige, only to be rained out. Gibson’s
crying and shouting is far more painful to audiences
than it is for him—over the top and unnecessary.
It's also unbelievable, because major league scouts
were already VERY much aware of his talents without
this “big” game.
Much more interesting is
the way Branch Rickey (portrayed quite well in appearance
and behavior by Edward Herrmann) wheels and deals,
instructing his scouts to look deeper into the three
candidates' characters. At least they don't play
this for suspense like the silliness with the Willie
Mays motif. The fact that Robinson is the chosen
one is as well known as the fact that Germany loses
WWII. Interest comes from seeing how this comes
about, and this is the strongest part of the film.
None of them is flawless,
and the stakes are high. Should the chosen pioneer
fail, it would set back the cause of bringing additional
blacks into the majors for years. That’s why Rickey
wants their characters examined—he wants a man who
can win favor with the white audience over time.
The choice becomes obvious.
With a college degree and proven leadership skills
in the Army, Robinson only has to control his anger—tested
here when the showboating Paige orders his teammates
off the field so he can strike Gibson out alone
and when a teammate refers to Robinson as a “house
nigger.” Despite being the best pitcher in baseball
this side of Bob Feller, Paige’s old carcass is
an issue, but even bigger are his showboating habits
and lackadaisical attitude about showing up on time.
No one ever hit more home runs than Gibson and the
film illustrates his power when he blasts one over
the centerfield wall one-handed, but rumors about
his mental health linger, and a drunken encounter
with Mayor LaGuardia seals his fate.
Of course, racism must take
center stage in such a television drama, and the
film contains a scene at a rural grocery with a
young white girl that illustrates much of the country’s
attitude at the time--she's much like a Huckleberry
Finn before the river trip. It's acceptable to converse
sociably with blacks, but allowing them to use the
restroom is another matter. Another nice touch is
a scene before a big ballgame in Washington D.C.
with Marion Anderson (a remarkable duplication by
Tracy Holliway) operatically singing the national
anthem. A "knowing" glance is cast by Jackie Robinson
at Anderson, who also pioneered a major breakthrough
in her field.
By far the most experienced
actor Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X), so he carries most
of the movie. In public old Satch was a crowd-pleaser,
about the most quotable baseball player in history
after the humorous quips of Casey Stengel and Yogi
Berra--two aphorisms cited notably here are his statement
that Gibson "can't hit what he can't see" and the
even more famous, "Don't look back—something might
be gaining on you." What the public never saw was
the private Paige, so this film illustrates the
man behind the showboating façade—a man clearly
concerned about his health and making it to the
major leagues, and a proud athlete filled with a
tempered bitterness about the unfairness of it all.
Whether this is a true portrait, only old Satch's
wife and intimates know for sure, but the portrait
makes sense and Lindo balances the act competently.
Soul of the Game
is hardly a great film, but it's watchable. Baseball
fans will appreciate it far more than non-fans,
and it's worth a look for the history despite the
awkwardly forced cinematic moments that make film