Welcome to my series of reviews of baseball movies. Baseball is the sport that translates best to film – there’s ample pausing for dramatic effect, players are in distinct positions in the camera’s frame, and it has the grandest characters. It clearly has the best movies of any sport and that’s what we’re gonna break down here. I’ll try my best to avoid cheesy puns like “Bull Durham hits it out of the park!” or “42 swings and misses!” – but no promises. 

In 2021, Baseball Reference made quite the announcement: The Negro Leagues Are Major Leagues. They decided to display stats, records, and historical accounts right alongside the white leagues of the same era. 

And they’re right. Barred from playing in the American League or National League due to the color of their skin, black ballplayers (who were often much more talented than their white counterparts) were forced to play wherever they could play. 

The Negro leagues have been largely forgotten. Records are spotty at best, information is incomplete (I’ve tried to do a little research on the local Baltimore Black Sox, but that was a waste of time), and the recognition these players deserve is still not reflected in places like the Hall of Fame.

It’s not reflected in our movies, either. Kevin Costner has three major baseball movies, but, as far as I can tell, the Negro leagues only have one major release dedicated solely to telling that forgotten part of baseball history: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings from 1976. 

Bingo Long stars Billy Dee Williams as the dazzling Bingo (based on Satchel Paige), James Earl Jones as Leon, the strong power-hitting catcher (based on Josh Gibson), and Richard Pryor as Charlie or “Carlos,” who tries to pass as Cuban to get into the white majors.

After getting fed up with the tyrannical treatment of their team’s owner, they decide to break off and create their own barnstorming troupe. They’re so much more talented than the farmers, lawyers, and all-around amateurs that they play against, they are able to just fart around in their games. Inspired by the infamous Indianapolis Clowns, with a dash of the Harlem Globetrotters, they pitch without a defense behind them, throw behind their backs, juggle between their legs, and put together lineups with quite the cast of colorful characters. 

I have very complicated feelings about the Savannah Bananas. I love that they’re bringing more fans to the sport, speeding up games a little, and making baseball fun again – which it’s supposed to be. But it feels artificial to me, it feels like a gimmick. At a certain point, I think they’re doing a little too much Broadway and not enough baseball.

I love watching the Globetrotters. No matter their nonsense, I’ve never felt like every single one of those players didn’t love basketball with their whole heart. They don’t feel the need to improve it. 

The Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings are like the Savannah Bananas, but completely authentic. They’re putting on a show, of course. They need to sell tickets. But they’re still playing the game for real – something even the Globetrotters can’t say. 

And because they’re putting on a performance, the movie is damn fun. 

I show this movie to my 7th-grade students every year. I use it as a companion piece to a quick unit on 20th Century race relations that includes Claudette Colvin and Jackie Robinson. I have to preface it every time to my students who love Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens more than you could imagine. “I know you’re tired of me talking about baseball,” I say as I wear my Negro League Memphis Red Sox jersey, “but it’s not the kind of baseball you know.”

“Just give it a chance,” I plead. 

And every year it surprises them. Sure, some folks never like anything their teacher puts in front of them (I could part the Red Sea and they would be unimpressed), but so many of them enjoy it. Partially because it’s a little raunchy for 7th grade, but mainly because their fun is infectious. “Hey, I know him from Star Wars!” and “Wait, he’s in Star Wars too!” turn into “They better not do my man Carlos like that!” and “Go! Go! Go! Go! He caught it!”

I make them fill out a little movie review worksheet and the 4.5 and 5 stars roll in. I did it. I changed their minds and they liked it.

Well, I didn’t really do anything except put a terrific movie in front of them. Bingo Long is a theatrical revue of baseball bananas. It’s got hammerin’ home runs, diving catches, and an endless amount of smack talk. 

They don’t have to change the game to make it fun. It’s already fun. It’s a game, after all.

And they’re fun. And lovable. And endlessly rewatchable. 

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