Hollywood has made many beloved films about baseball from Field of Dreams to The Pride of the Yankees. 1976’s The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings is a lively, enjoyable movie about America’s pastime that like the era it portrays is often forgotten today.
The plot: In the waning days of the Negro League, a free-spirited Satchel Paige-esque pitcher named Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams, at the peak of his considerable charisma) chafes under the exploitative tactics of his team’s owner. He persuades a fearsome slugger (the ever-impressive James Earl Jones) and a number of other Black players to form their own barnstorming baseball team. Bingo’s motley group includes a slow-witted outfielder (A quite funny Richard Pryor) who thinks he can play in the Major Leagues if he can just persuade white people that he is Cuban or Native American. After the Negro League owners close off the Traveling All Stars & Motor King’s access to other black teams, they begin to play white teams instead. The teammates thus must confront the question that every Black entertainer of the era faced: Is it morally acceptable to clown around in front of white audiences in order to appease the bigots and thereby stay employed?
This is mainly a bright comedy that delivers a few big laughs and many smaller smiles. There are dramatic themes as well. For a Hollywood film, there is more Marxism than one would expect. The white baseball teams of this era were owned by wealthy white people who generally treated their players like serfs. The black teams in this film are owned by wealthy black people who generally treat their players like…serfs. As Jones’ character tells Bingo Long, their team’s struggle for economic independent is not so much about race as it is about how the “workers can seize the means of production”. The story also includes some intriguing (if underdeveloped) observations on race, most particularly in a subplot involving a Jackie Robinson-like member of Bingo’s team (earnestly portrayed by Stan Shaw) who attracts the interest of a white team. Bingo wants the best for him, but also knows that the breaking of Major League baseball’s color line will destroy the all-Black baseball world which he loves.
The only significant weakness of the movie is its uneven tone. First-time director John Badham didn’t quite decide whether he was fundamentally making a comedy or a drama, and he shifts gears back and forth pretty roughly at times. For example, the owners of the black teams are buffoonish villains at one moment, but then order that someone be slashed with a razor the next. As a result, if you look over the careers of the three leads, you will note some more consistently funny comedies and some more consistently weighty dramas than this film.
That said, the entertainment value of this movie is very high end-to-end, and the art direction and set design bring its historical period alive. There are films that are very hard to like, and films that are very hard to dislike. Thanks to its irresistible leads and the window it opens into an aspect of baseball history that Hollywood usually ignores, this film falls decisively into the latter camp.