Vintage Pulp Jul 16 2018
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
Neglected baseball comedy reminds viewers that the American pastime was also the African American pastime.


Major League Baseball is known as America's pastime. But for decades it was really only the pastime for whites, due to the fact that black participation was banned by every team, and black spectatorship was limited by apartheid laws. But during that time African Americans formed their own leagues, and those teams and players are part of wider baseball lore. As far as we know The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, which is set in 1939, is the only major movie about black baseballers during the pre-integration era. That alone makes it worth a gander. James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams in the starring roles are bonuses. The plot involves various Negro League athletes who band together and barnstorm around the U.S. They're trying to get out from under bad contracts with their original teams, or bad jobs in mundane professions, but of course this break toward freedom leads to trouble.

The film benefits from excellent exterior location work. Director John Badham makes use of the old sharecropper cabins, winding rural roads, and rickety wooden stadiums of the American countryside. These would have existed in abundance when the film was made in the mid-1970s, requiring little in the way of set design. The authenticity is palpable. In other areas the film misses the mark, particularly in the tone of the performances, which are Vaudevillian and over-vernacularized. Butone aspect of the film hits a bullseye. James Earl Jones expresses it succinctly when he hears that the Major Leagues are scouting black players: “So the white man is finally moving in,” he says, as if speaking about the mafia. He goes on to predict the death of Negro League Baseball. Jones's point is crystalline: the Major Leagues broke the color line not out of altruism or justice, but in order to protect its product.

The oldest Negro League team had been around since 1885. By the 1940s Negro League players had competed against white players and proved to be capable, and in some instances, superior. MLB had a legitimacy problem. It couldn't truly claim to contain all the best baseball players. People were growing more interested in black baseball. Money was being made on the sport beyond the confines of MLB. A lot of money. Breaking the color line cemented the legitimacy of MLB's talent claims, and it obliterated competition from Negro League baseball, which died on the vine. Today black ownership in Major League Baseball is basically 0%. Only the Miami Marlins, with Derek Jeter possessing 4% of the club, can claim—and just barely—to have minority ownership. But a merger of Negro teams into the league rather than a raid of players might well have led to a different story. MLB integrated the field, but ensured future segregation of the owner's box.

Though the color line for players was broken all the way back in 1947, today MLB has another legitimacy problem. Black participation has declined over the decades. Organized baseball requires fields, equipment, sponsorship, and other elements that are scarce in poor communities. Of course, they've always been scarce, but as public money dries up and individual wages stagnate, community support for baseball and family income allowing for participation in it are lacking. African American rostering on Major League Baseball squads is at 1956 levels. Many consider that a travesty; but America being America, many don't. MLB's front office just lately has made some minimal efforts to address the problem. It will be interesting to see how those go. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings premiered in the U.S. today in 1976.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
December 18
1912—Piltdown Man Discovered
A hominid fossil known as Piltdown Man is found in England's Piltdown Gravel Pit by paleontologist Charles Dawson. The fragments are thought by many experts of the day to be the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown form of early man, but in 1953 it is discovered to be a hoax composed of a human skeleton and an orangutan's jawbone. The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown, but suspects have included Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Arthur Conan Doyle and others.
December 17
1967—Australian Prime Minister Disappears
The Prime Minister of Australia, Harold Holt, who was best known for expanding Australia's role in the Vietnam War, disappears while swimming at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria and is presumed drowned.
1969—Project Blue Book Ends
The United States Air Force completes its study of UFOs, stating that sightings are generated as a result of a mild form of mass hysteria, and that individuals who fabricate such reports do so to perpetrate a hoax or seek publicity, or are psychopathological persons, or simply misidentify various conventional objects.
December 16
1985—Gotti Ascends to Mafia Throne
In New York City, mafiosi Paul Castellano and Thomas Bilotti are shot dead on the orders of John Gotti, paving the way for Gotti to assume leadership of the powerful Gambino crime family. Gotti is eventually arrested by federal authorities in 1990, and dies of throat cancer in 2002 in a federal prison hospital.
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