Soul of the Game (1996)

Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan

Stars: Delroy Lindo, Mykelti Williamson, Blair Underwood, Edward Herrmann

Release Company: HBO

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Baseball Movies

Soul of the Game


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No sport 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 movies.

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 fans cringe.

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