[Baseball History] Soul of the Game
Ford Fricks Asterisk : April 30, 2007 12:59 PM

At least they got the names right.

I've been known to write some (excessively) long critiques of baseball movies, so after watching Soul of the Game for the first time over the weekend, I wouldn't want to disappoint.

For those of you who have never seen it, or need your memory refreshed, Soul of the Game was a 1996 television movie about Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson vying to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. The most notable star at the time was Blair Underwood as Robinson.

This is your typical "based on true life" story that you should only expect to make contact with the facts at a few important points and embellish the rest of the time, so I'm going to bring up facts that I didn't actually expect them to stay true to – after all, it was an entertaining movie – however, I think they failed to really accomplish either goal: uncover a fascinating fact-filled story, or create a more interesting and complex story based loosely on the facts. In the end, Gary Hoffman and David Himmelstein wrote a simplified story that was lazy in its research and grasp on reality.

I felt the premise was off in the first place – that there was an obvious linear path to the integration of MLB, and that it had to be this guy or that guy. We know that there were more than a half-dozen Negro League players over the years who had received try-outs or talked contract with MLB teams, only to have those dashed away. In some cases they were players most baseball fans have never even heard of before. However, the path shown in the movie is understandable for the sake of telling a good story.

Name Dropping... during the final credits, I realized that there were crowded and short scenes where real life people were portrayed without me even noticing, while others were invented to help fill in the story. I think Branch Rickey's assistants/scouts Steve Buckley and Pete Harmon were fictional, although in real life former player Clyde Sukeforth was a notable scout and assistant to Rickey, who was left out of the movie. Then there was the oddity that with all the name dropping, no name was given to the Monarch's manager, who appeared in several scenes... with just a minute or two of research, I can tell you it was Frank Duncan.

And Casting... Underwood seemed like a stretch as Robinson, but I assume they needed one famous name for billing, and the others were either no-names or veteran role players. Edward Herrmann seemed a natural for Branch Rickey, and I enjoyed Mykelti “Bubba Gump” Williamson as Josh Gibson. However, while I always enjoy seeing Jerry “Deep Throat” Hardin show up on screen, I’m not sure what they were thinking when they cast the 66-year-old as 38-year-old Commissioner Happy Chandler.

Speaking of Chandler, he seemed sympathetic but unsupportive of Rickey’s grand plan in the movie, yet he was apparently supportive in real life, “If they can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal [and] in the South Pacific, they can play ball in America." When MLB owners voted 15-1 against a proposal from Rickey to integrate the majors, Chandler vetoed any power of the vote. The movie also portrayed Rickey as being upset that Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had threatened “economic sanctions” if baseball wasn’t integrated, as he didn’t want it to look like the Dodgers were simply caving to pressure. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but LaGuardia – a huge baseball fan – really did form a committee called “End Jim Crow in Baseball”.

Setting Up The Story… The movie opens with a reporter talking to Willie Mays during the 1954 World Series, and uses this as a vehicle for telling the rest of the story, with the reporter telling Mays how baseball's integration developed during 1945.

Mays also illogically pops up at various times in the storyline, which made no sense at all. I can't tell you where Mays really was in 1945, but he would have been 14 at the time. He was born in Westfield, Alabama, and he first played professionally for Birmingham in 1948. So I seriously doubt he and his dad Cat were wandering around the country, catching the Negro Leaguers playing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania or Washington, D.C., where the younger Mays even shook Gibson's hand (I think they also showed them at the East-West All-Star Game at Ebbets Field).

For having such a minor part in the movie, I thought they could have at least cast someone who looked remotely similar to Willie Mays, and with a little effort they could have come up a different way of setting up the story that seemed more realistic. I had thought about both Larry Doby and Al Smith, who were former Negro Leaguers playing in the 1954 World Series for Cleveland, when it occurred to me that Doby was never even mentioned in the movie.

In Harrisburg, Cat Mays talks with Paige and recalls doubling and homering off him on July 4, 1926. The elder Mays was a good center fielder himself, and allegedly played for Birmingham for a short time, although there's no documentation of it. He was otherwise known as a prominent industrial league player around Alabama. It is possible that Paige and Cat Mays crossed paths, as Paige was from Mobile, Alabama and played for Birmingham himself from 1927-30 (in 1926 he was with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts).

The Dictator’s League… the first real action of the movie showed Paige and Gibson playing for the team of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. This would have been correct if not for the writers' insistance that the entire movie take place in 1945.

Trujillo did operate a league in the Dominican Republic for one season that involved many Negro League players, despite political unrest there. The Americans usually played scared and were thrilled to get the season over with and return home. Paige and Gibson were even teammates on the dictator's personal team Ciudad Trujillo... but all of this happened in 1937. While the Dominicans were allies to the U.S. in World War II (they declared war on Germany and Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but weren't really active in the war effort), I find it hard to believe that Americans could have played ball in the DR in 1945 between the war and the way Trujillo's reign had developed.

Just What Was Gibson’s Problem?... Gibson’s deteriorating mental state played a large role in the movie (in fact, it was the reason Rickey wasn’t considering him to break the color line). There are two or three times that characters make reference to his drug and alcohol problems, although they’re largely brushed over and never shown on screen, and they also mention headaches. However, the message seems to be that Gibson was suffering from some mystery that not even he knew about… which wasn’t the case at all…

In fact, doctors had diagnosed Gibson with a brain tumor in 1943, as confirmed by his sister. Gibson started abusing drugs and alcohol during the ‘40s after avoiding those vices early in his career, and the combination of things led to a rapid physical decline. While his mental health was slipping right along with his physical health, he knew the sources of his problems, and he had declined surgery on the tumor because he feared he’d become an invalid.

Gibson was a great hitter right up until the day he died, but he had slipped so far physically in the other aspects of the game that by 1945 he was a serious liability behind the plate, and had taken to stooping to catch, rather than crouching.

At Least Make the Routine Plays… At the end of the movie, it’s stated that Gibson hit 972 home runs in Negro League action, and that he died at age 36, shortly before Robinson made his major league debut. In this case, batting .333 isn’t a good thing.

Gibson supposedly hit 962 home runs (and it should probably be noted that this is his count for all types of “Negro League” competition, including non-league teams and whatever other level of competition he faced). He did die a few months before Robinson debuted with Brooklyn, but it was a month after his 35th birthday.

The 1945 East-West Game… The movie used the 1945 East-West Negro League All-Star Game as the gathering point for all of the key figures. In reality, only one of the central figures appeared in that game, and even some of the minor figures were out of place.

Neither Paige nor Gibson played in that game, and Robinson played shortstop for the West team, not second base. In fact, the movie portrays Paige as making the decision earlier in the season that Robinson move to second base from shortstop, switching positions with the veteran Jesse Williams. Not true. Robinson always played short in his one-year career in the Negro Leagues, which shifted the veteran shortstop Williams to second base. It was the Dodgers scouts who felt Robinson didn’t have the arm for shortstop, and moved him to the other side of the bag in 1946 with the Montreal Royals. In the movie, Pete Harmon tells Rickey that Robinson is “the most natural second baseman I’ve ever seen”, but no Dodgers scout ever really saw Robinson play the position. They also show Williams (who really seems to get a raw deal in his portrayal) making an error at shortstop in the game. He really did play in the game, but as I’ve just established, he was at 2B.

Anyway, to keep Paige and Gibson on opposite sides in the East-West game (although neither was really there), they have Roy Campanella catching Paige. Unless they barnstormed together, these two never formed a battery. Campanella was a long-time catcher for the Baltimore Elite Giants and caught that game for the East (in place of Gibson). Monte Irvin was mentioned a couple of times, despite the fact he was in Europe at the time, serving as an Army engineer in WWII.

They also botched their geography and math. Although placing the game in New York was probably necessary to condense it down to the same trip in which Robinson met with Rickey, the East-West Game was always played in Comiskey Park. In fact, it had been played there for 13 straight years in 1945, so it wasn’t the 12th annual contest as they stated in the movie.

Etc…. My one other problem was simply the contrivance of throwing in facts where they didn’t seem natural… the Monarch’s manager telling Williams of Robinson’s court marshalling, the story of Jackie’s brother Mac, and the use of Paige’s famous sayings at every opportunity, and so on.

I’ve seen other complaints about the movie, such as the portrayal of Paige as a devoted husband rather than an adulterer, or that there’s no proof that Robinson and Gibson even knew each other (and there’s no way they did to the extent the movie shows, although I don’t doubt they played against each other at some point in 1945). However, these are the type of things that don’t bother me in a fluff piece that’s meant to show these men as heroes. It’s the lack of research that gets in my way. If you want to ignore the facts, at least do so for the sake of making the plotline more complex, rather than dumbing down both.

If you get the chance to watch the movie, do so, because it can be entertaining. Just don’t remember it as truth.

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