July 30, 2006


‘Bingo’ is special to Jones: Actor thinks movie about black ballplayers was misunderstood. (RAYMOND DOSWELL, Jul. 30, 2006, The Kansas City Star)

[T[he role that started [James Earl Jones's] run of baseball films was Leon Carter — the intellectual, nonconformist, power-hitting catcher in “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” which debuted 30 years ago.

In a phone interview from an office near his upstate New York home, Jones, 75, reflected on the irony of acting in films such as “Bingo Long” and “The Great White Hope,” where he plays a prizefighter.

“I’m 6-1 and know nothing about sports,” Jones said. “I’m flat-footed. I couldn’t hit a ball. I had to fake hitting a ball.”

As a child, his exposure to baseball came from listening to a radio connected to a car battery. His grandfather was a fan of Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Satchel Paige.

“(Paige) was an icon in our family,” Jones said. “It had something to do with style, I think, too, which I think we tried to capture in ‘Bingo Long.’ ”

“Bingo Long” came to the screen when young Hollywood producer Rob Cohen convinced Motown Records founder Barry Gordy to invest in rights and writers fees to turn author William Brashler’s gritty baseball novel, of the same title, into a feature film. Brashler fictionalized segregated America in 1939 through the lens of a rebellious black exhibition baseball team. They work through various misadventures — battling bad luck and racism with athletic skill and humor — while barnstorming the country to escape an oppressive owner from the Negro Leagues.

Since the late 1800s, there had been a tradition of players or teams who added vaudevillelike antics to their performances. The All-Stars on screen were patterned more after the Indianapolis Clowns of the later Negro Leagues than the Kansas City Monarchs or the Homestead Grays, who played straight baseball. The cast of “Bingo Long” even featured some old Clowns players.

“They took the game of baseball seriously, but they took life lightly and they would entertain people,” Jones said about the All-Stars. “They’d use midgets, they’d use one-armed players. They would do anything to draw a crowd.”

But the film wasn’t a big box-office draw, and later that summer it had to compete against another baseball movie, “The Bad News Bears.” The negative critiques of “Bingo Long” were disappointing to Jones.

“Even the liberal press was upset because Cohen and his group of actors spent all their time and money making a ‘comedy’ when you had a great tragedy you could tell about the Negro players,” Jones said. “Well, we didn’t set out to make a tragedy, but that’s what they wanted in that year.”

The '70s were our liberal decade--nothing was supposed to be funny.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 30, 2006 10:12 AM

Ain't technology grand? I just ordered Bingo Long ... from Netflix and we should be enjoying it by next weekend.

Posted by: erp at July 30, 2006 11:10 AM

Of course the Bad News Bears is also a great movie.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at July 30, 2006 11:15 AM

The hair and clothing were funny.

Posted by: Sandy P at July 31, 2006 12:25 AM