baseball movies

Movie Review: Soul of the Game – A Triple Play of Great Stars

Written by Gary Hoffman and David Himmelstein
Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan

For those of you who think the biggest dividing line in baseball is the Designated Hitter which is the major difference between playing in the American League versus the National League, back in 1945 the sport was divided much more. As was seen in A League of Their Own, there was also the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. This rose up in answer to so many of the players being shipped off to fight in World War II.

Of course, there was also the Negro League, but what white man at the time would go see colored ballplayers in a stadium filled will colored fans? They’d rather watch the women play…

But times were changing, and a lot of that had to do with people fighting together during the war and being forced to get along. Exposure to something you don’t understand has a way of making people change the way they think.

Branch Rickey (portrayed by Edward Hermann), the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decides it’s time to start bringing players from the Negro League into Major League baseball. To do this, he creates a red herring, proposing a team known as “The Brooklyn Brown Dodgers” which will play in Ebbets Field while the Dodgers are on the road. This is a cover to allow his scouts into the stadiums the Negro players are playing in, so he can find the perfect player to break the color barrier.

Most of the films made about this time focus on the Dodgers, or on what happened once they signed Jackie Robinson to play. Soul of the Game is a bit different, as it shows the internal competition that went on in the Negro Leagues to be that first ballplayer to break the color barrier.

The competition seemed to be between Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige (portrayed by Mykelti Williamson and Delroy Lindo respectively). It seemed to be a given that either of these men, both fantastic ballplayers, would be the one Branch Rickey chose to break the color barrier in Major League baseball.

As much as I’ve seen movies depicting the poor condition of blacks in America during this time, what’s shown in Soul of the Game is the opposite. These athletes are the celebrities among their people and live quite nicely. They are also known to others, as is shown when the trio of players meets New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (portrayed by Al Rossi) for the first time. The hotels they stay at, although still frequented only by those whose skin matches theirs, are nicely decorated and appointed, rather than being the rat holes I can remember being shown. They are often owned, managed, and staffed by other blacks as well. This was a bit eye-opening from what I’ve seen previously, although the notion of “separate but equal” still doesn’t wash when you have no choice but to stay in establishments such as these. The costuming and setting all have a wonderfully accurate feel to them that really made me feel immersed in the time period as I viewed it.

Delroy Lindo is excellent as Satchel Paige. He’s an aging superstar, and one has to wonder what the stats of many Major Leaguers throughout the 1930s would have been like if they had to face this incredible pitcher. Lindo portrays Paige with the right amount of seriousness versus levity. He enjoys life, but at the same time, he knows the clock is ticking. He feels it every day in his pitching arm and yearns to pitch in the Major Leagues before he retires. He’s a number of years older than he claims to be, and eventually did become the oldest Rookie of the Year. Lindo gives an excellent performance as a man who’s grounded in the reality he faces every day due to the color of his skin, but who knows there are some great things that can still come his way if only he can force his body to work long enough.

Josh Gibson was a name I knew only vaguely before viewing Soul of the Game. I’d heard mention that he would have given Ruth a run for his money had he been playing in the major leagues for his career but thought it was all hype. Instead, I got to know the story of a man who probably was every bit as good as they said, but was fighting the effects of a brain tumor that ended up killing him before he could rise into the limelight along with other players from the Negro League once Jackie Robinson broke the barrier. His story is the most tragic of all, and Williamson seems to give Gibson that tragic edge, even as he’s fighting the symptoms of what will eventually kill him.

Blair Underwood portrays Jackie Robinson here. His performance is decent in what is a legendary role as Robinson chafes under the social order of the time as well as the condescending tones of the veteran players that surround him in the Negro Leagues before he is chosen to play for the Dodgers. It is only then that Paige begins to see him on a more even footing. The interaction between the two men after this could have felt false as if Paige knew his only ticket to the Major Leagues was through Robinson and how he fared, but to both actors’ credit it didn’t come off that way at all. Robinson seems to gain an appreciation for the struggles both Paige and Gibson have made through the years, and the two form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to help Gibson.

Where Soul of the Game suffers is in the accuracy of events. While much of what is shown makes for a nice story, it’s not as nice as the one shown here. Paige is shown with his wife (portrayed by Salli Richardson) in a number of scenes, and their relationship seems to be built on mutual support and love. In reality, Paige had a reputation for being a womanizer. While the only reason for Gibson’s behavior that precludes him from being the first to graduate from the Negro Leagues to the majors is due to the brain tumor, there were also reports of alcoholism and heroin addiction. I also question how much interaction a young Willie Mays (portrayed by Isaiah Washington) had with other ballplayers, although his presence makes the point that Mays’ own father was a stand-out in the Negro Leagues who never had the opportunity for greatness his son would be afforded. These details are somewhat minor as they don’t affect the overall tone of what all of these men were shooting for to consider themselves a success, despite the fact that they were probably faring better than most during this time.

Soul of the Game is a great picture for baseball fans to gain some perspective on events that have generally been shown from one perspective up until now. It did make me wonder how different the record books would be now had integration taken place twenty years prior to these events. As I look at the possibility we might elect our first African-American President, it’s amazing to realize what struggles it took for us to get to this point, and how social activities such as sports leagues were the proving ground for much of the changes that have taken place.

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