Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976)

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Many people argue that America has never produced a great philosopher, but I disagree. I'm ready to stack Satchel Paige up against Aristotle any day. For one thing, Ari was pretty slow down the line in his sandals and gown, and for another thing Satch actually came up with some philosophical statements that have some practical value.

His six basic rules:

  • Avoid fried meats and fatty foods, which angry up the blood.

  • If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

  • Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you walk.

  • Go very light on the vices such as carryin' on in society. The social ramble ain't restful.

  • Avoid running at all times.

  • Don't look back, something might be gaining on you.

I don't see how those principles can lead you too far astray. I don't think Buddha himself could have devised a better path to enlightenment.

Satch was not only a great philosopher, but a pretty good pitcher as well, maybe the best ever, although we'll never know, because he was a black man and before 1947 he was barred from competing in major league baseball. By the time he got to the majors in 1948, he was already about a thousand years old (some say as young as 41, others as old as 60), but the old codger still had enough juice on his heater to go 6-1 with a 2.47 ERA, and toss two shutouts in his seven starts, while helping Cleveland to the American League pennant. If the Major Leagues had been integrated continuously from their inception in the 1970s, Ol'  Satchel Paige might now own every pitching record in the books.



Don't look back, America, something might be gaining on you.

At any rate, before 1947, the top black players like Satch had two choices - to play in the (loosely) organized Negro Leagues, or to barnstorm. The Negro League owners were a questionable lot, so the players often chose to travel on their own. Players traveled across the USA, the Caribbean, even Japan. These barnstorming tours were so popular that some of the top white players joined up. The great Bambino himself was once suspended for barnstorming in direct contravention of the commissioner's orders.

Gentlemen of all colors from my father's generation remembered the barnstorming era as a time when people went to the ballpark to have a rip-roarin' good time, to see outrageous antics, and to tell ever more outrageous stories about what they had seen. We've lost a lot of that in the current version of the major league game. After the major leagues were integrated, the humor of the game was preserved for a while by the mad baseball genius, Bill Veeck, but the other owners considered him a crazy, disrespectful maverick. When Veeck passed away, most of the major league baseball fun went with him, to be preserved only in some of the more creative minor league franchises.

This film is about those barnstorming years, a time when baseball was pure fun, not some kind of treasured icon to be revered for its cultural significance, nor some kind of business struggle between labor and management or between poor teams and rich. The black barnstorming teams were sort of a baseball equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, combining top skills with shenanigans. The games included plenty of clowning, and plenty of good baseball as well. The barnstorming team would often play a local all-star team, black or white, and even if the locals lost, what a thrill it was for the hometown crowd to see one of their favorites stroke a couple of hits against the great Satchel Paige, or strike out Josh Gibson.

My own dad was very white, but he once thought of himself as a player, and some of his fishing buddies actually played in the Negro Leagues and with the barnstorming teams. It is from their stories that he fabricated his own highly dubious myth about his career as the only white guy in the Negro Leagues, and it is from my further embellishments of that faux-legend that I created his web page. This movie is similar in tone to that page. It takes all of the best legends of black baseball and uses them to create a fictionalized version of the era. The film never really takes itself too seriously, and allows itself to indulge in the legendary nature of some of the stories. Nothing in this film actually happened, and the characters didn't exist, but the screenplay is derived from the oft-repeated stories about that era. Amazingly enough, this film was created and directed by a white Englishman - John Badham. (Badham seems to understand America better than most Americans - he also directed Saturday Night Fever.) 

There is one element of the fictionalization that I find inappropriate. This film pictures the first black player to go to the white leagues as an ignorant 19-year-old boy. In essence, the screenplay rewrote history to make Willie Mays, not Jackie Robinson, the first black big leaguer. I mean no disrespect to Willie, but when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, he was a mature man, a former officer in the U.S. armed services, and a college graduate. I'm completely bewildered by the screenwriters' desire to change that aspect of history. In fact, the real story lends much more dignity to the individual, while the fictionalization makes the guy seem more like a white stereotype of black athletes.

Somebody needs to write a great script about the glory days of black baseball, filled with the poignancy and the humor that imbued the time with its special flavor. And that film could have a helluva sound track, which Bingo is sorely lacking. Maybe I need to turn my dad's stories into a screenplay. Nah, maybe the project should be created by someone who actually knows what he's doing. But if I ever did write a movie, that would be the one.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • full-length director's commentary

Bingo isn't a great film, and some moments are downright embarrassing, but it does have something that most of the great baseball movies lack. It is fun. It shows men playing the summer game with joy and exuberance and good humor, as games should be played. For that alone, I love the damned film, although I realize it could have been and should have been so much better.

The Critics Vote

  • no reviews online

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDB readers say 6.3/10
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. It's a good-time film about the barnstorming days, but falls short of being the great film it might have been.

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