Bingo Long... (1976) is fiction, but fiction based on a very real part of sports history.
This wasn’t officially sanctioned league play. It was more like “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” devised to put extra dollars in the pockets of players normally at the mercy of stingy and/or unscrupulous team owners.
During the off-season – and sometimes on free days during the season – players would descend on a rural burg with all the pomp and hoopla of a traveling circus. The locals might see a game between two of these traveling “barnstorming” teams. Or they might be treated to a contest between the nomadic professionals and locally-grown all stars.
This is the world depicted in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, the first feature film directed by TV veteran John Badham, who would go on to A-list fame just a year later with his landmark Saturday Night Fever.
Featuring the big-name triumvirate of Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor, it’s clearly the work of a first-time feature director. It’s pleasant and frequently funny, but with a meandering style it lacks much in the way of dramatic tension.
But as a glimpse into the world of baseball barnstormering, it’s a quiet revelation.
The script (by Hal Barwood, William Brashler, and Matthew Robbins) finds Negro Leagues pitcher Bingo Long (Williams) quitting the team operated by a penny-pinching owner. Taking several equally fed-up players with him, Bingo hits the road on a barnstorming tour.
Among his new teammates are the power hitter Leon Carter (Jones, playing a character based on Josh Gibson) and wild man Charlie Snow (Pryor), who has some interesting ideas about breaking into the all-white Majors.
The Bingo Long All-Stars quickly learn that in order to put money in their pockets they have to do more than just play baseball. They’ve got to become entertainers. They’ve got to “shine.”
Typically they enter a town doing a rhythmic cakewalk down the main drag, followed by the two touring cars in which they ride around.
The “performance” extends even to the game itself. Given that the All-Stars could wipe up the floor with most of the local teams (and that the stands are often packed with racists), they have to be creative to hook and keep the paying customers.
Bingo (the character is loosely based on real-life Negro Leagues star Satchel Paige, who was himself a barnstormer) develops outlandish windups and throwing tricks. He pitches one game in a gorilla suit. He invents an exploding hardball that covers the batter in white dust.
To demonstrate his confidence, Bingo orders his fielders to lie down and nap. He’ll smother the other team’s offense all by himself.
The fielders specialize in back-handed catches and triple-play scenarios that see the ball buzzing between basemen like an oversized pinball game. (If you’re familiar with the Harlem Globetrotters, you’ve got an idea of what Bingo’s bunch can do.)
At one point Bingo hires a midget as the team’s catcher and a one-armed fellow to play first base.
These sorts of things really happened. But within the context of the film, all this “shining” serves to point out that for black men, playing the non-threatening fool was a way of surviving in a hostile environment.
The film’s depiction of the barnstorming world is wildly colorful. It’s also, on some levels, depressing. This was a life of dusty and untended ball parks, cheap boarding houses, unfriendly cops, and harassment by team owners hoping to force renegade players back into league play.
Director Badham knew something about this. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and was a fan of the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the many teams that provided a home for Satchel Paige.
Top comedic honors here go to Pryor as an ambitious fellow with endless schemes to break the Major League color barrier. Poring over a Spanish dictionary, he develops a terrible accent in the hope of passing himself off not as a Negro but as a Cuban. That accent generates much hilarity in a sequence set in a small-town bordello.
Late in the film he shows up in ten-gallon hat and fringed leather jacket, having concluded that it will be easier to imitate a Native American.
The not-so-funny joke, of course, is that real Negro League players were more than capable of holding their own in the white majors, but until the rise of Jackie Robinson in the late 1940s they were never given the chance.
Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- June 2: Field of Dreams (1989) Rated PG
- June 9: Eight Men Out (1988) Rated PG
- June 16: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) Rated PG
- June 23: A League of Their Own (1992) Rated PG
- June 30: The Rookie (2002) Rated PG
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- June 4: Major League (1989) Rated R
- June 11: Damn Yankees! (1958) Not Rated
- June 18: Bull Durham (1988) Rated R
- June 25: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.