Soul of the Game (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Yet another fine specialty film from HBO. Score it a strong ground-rule double, nearly a homer.

This one is the flip side of Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars. Bingo presented the humorous side of the era in which the Negro baseball leagues ended and black ballplayers were recruited for the majors. It was a comedy, and it was a fictionalization.  Soul of the Game, on the other hand,  is a serious, but not humorless, historical drama covering the exact same era.

The three main characters were Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson. Robinson was the black man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. Paige and Gibson were the two greatest players in the history of black baseball, and also certainly two of the greatest players of all-time.

Gibson hit nearly 1000 lifetime homers before dying at 36, and was a rifle-armed catcher in a league that loved the running game. Even his detractors and realists have to concede that he was probably the best catcher of all time, although he never got a chance to prove it on a major league diamond.  His supporters say he was the best player of any kind or any era at any position. Period.


None, not even close.

Paige, I have written about many times. We'll never know how good he really was, because he was a major-league rookie at age ... well, he was somewhere between 42 and 60 then, and he was still tossing a few innings 17 years later! In 1948 he was the rookie of the year, went 6-1 with a terrific ERA, and helped Cleveland to a rare non-Yankee pennant (after that year, the New York Yankees won 14 times in the next 16 years). A great showman as well as a great pitcher, he was also possibly the greatest box-office draw in the history of baseball, exceeding Valenzuela or Ichiro or McGwire, maybe even challenging Babe Ruth himself. And he was just as good in the locker room with the reporters as he was on the field. His combination of clowning, gentle refinement, melancholy philosophy, witty interviews, and downright dominating talent made him one of the most interesting sportsmen of the century.

Most people thought that either Paige or Gibson would be the player to break the color barrier, but the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers felt that Paige was too old and Gibson's recent behavior too erratic (Gibson died of a brain tumor before Robinson appeared in his first major league game.) This film shows the story through the eyes of the three ballplayers and Branch Rickey (the Dodgers' owner).

It's a must-watch if you are a baseball fan. Even if you know the story, it is fun to see it come to life. Edward Herrmann is uncanny as Branch Rickey, and Delroy Lindo is downright supernatural as Satchel Paige, in a performance that challenges even Downey's portrayal of Chaplin for the best performance in a recent celebrity biopic. After a while, I forgot it was an actor, and watched Satch in action.

The film also includes one of the most simple and effective scenes I've ever seen, amazing for a made-for-cable sports movie. Paige, Mrs Paige and Robinson stop at a roadside station to buy some fruit, and Mrs. Paige has a friendly conversation with a little white girl who doesn't seem to notice that they are black. Mrs. Paige, in turn shows the girl great kindness, and shows her a better way to wear her hair. Everything seems blissful until Mrs. Paige asks to use the bathroom and the little girl says "oh, sorry, my daddy doesn't allow niggers inside". What makes the scene so effective is that the little girl doesn't seem to have any hatred, animosity or prejudice, and doesn't seem to realize how her words will hurt them. She's just a sweet child dutifully reciting her daddy's rule so matter-of-factly that it's obvious she's never been aware that there could be another way to look at it.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.77:1

  • no meaningful features

The one thing that kept the film from being a home run was its tendency to abandon biography in favor of hagiography. Satchel Paige wasn't the devoted husband and family man portrayed here, and Josh Gibson was a self-destructive alcoholic and woman-beater who was also addicted to heroin. Granted, Gibson's tumor killed him and exaggerated his mental lapses, but it just wasn't as simple as this movie would have you believe. It wasn't just a brain tumor and white racism that killed Josh Gibson. Gibson himself was a major contributor.

The film is assembled with a very smooth and watchable narrative. Kudos to the director.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin -"above average"

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDB readers say 7.4/10.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Must-see if you are interested in baseball, or the era of post-war integration. Only an unfortunate whitewashed oversimplification of the situation keeps me from recommending it as a crossover film. If you don't care that it is somewhat one-sided and oversimplified, you'll like it even if you don't much care for baseball. I love the film, but I am interested in both this era and baseball, and especially in the Negro Leagues. I have therefore forgiven the film's sins in the name of dramatic license and a necessary compression of the story.

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