William Brashler, The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings. New York:
Harper & Row, 1973. 244 pp.
Reviewed for American Baseball History (HIS 384) by Thomas L. Siekmeier, July 29, 1991.
* BRASHLER'S STARS *
William Brashler's novel The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings is
an absorbing work. It features well-drawn characters and a racy plot. Many legends that have circulated about Negro baseball are given a believable context here, like clowning with a phantom baseball, and Stars' pitcher Leon Carter driving a stake into a pole with laser beam fastballs. Brashler presents a slice of life about blacks at the tail end of the Depression. While a renegade barnstorming black baseball team is the focus, one gets a realistic, R-rated picture of what it was like to be black in America in 1939.
Setting the book in May 1939 and concluding it with some players taking the opportunity offered to play white baseball, Brashler intimates that his book is intended to be a snapshot of Negro baseball immediately before the color line in white baseball was broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
The novel has a solid historical base. Many characters are thinly disguised representatives of real black ballplayers. Stars' pitcher Leon Carter is fashioned after Satchel Paige, although his name more closely resembles Leon Day, another Negro Leagues pitcher. On the first page of the novel, "Cool Papa Blue" (á la Cool Papa Bell, the speedy outfielder enshrined in the Hall of Fame) comes to bat in a game when the team is still playing as the Louisville Ebony Aces. Turkey Travis suggests Turkey Stearnes, legendary Negro Leagues hitter and outfielder. Judy Gilliams stands for "Judy" Johnson, Hall of Fame third baseman. Power hitting catcher Bingo Long, the protagonist of the novel, most likely is a type of Josh Gibson, the "Black Babe Ruth," and Hall of Famer, whom Brashler mentions in his dedication. Brashler's other characters also have catchy 2012-4-21
baseball names: Fat Sam Popper, Mungo Redd, Splinter Tommy Washington, Big Juice Johnson, Shoe Jonal Pryor, Louis Keystone.
The operators in the backround of the book are Lionel Foster of Pittsburgh and Sallie Potter of Louisville. Each has apparently accumulated wealth via quasi-legal activities like gambling, numbers running, even prostitution. In this way both resemble Gus Greenlee, the Pittsburgh businessman who reformed the Negro National League in 1933, and Rube Foster, the Chicago businessman and principal black baseball promoter.
Beyond the names in the novel suggesting real Negro ballplayers, Brashler has stated that his research for writing Bingo Long became the basis for the subsequent
biography Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues (Harper & Row, 1976). (He must
like catchers: he's also co-author of Catch You Later: The Autobiography of Johnny
Bench.) Brashler shares Calvin College as alma mater with other notable writers Frederick Manfred (No Fun on Sunday, [University of Oklahoma Press, 1990]) and Peter
DeVries (and yours truly).
The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings open the book as players on the Louisville Ebony Aces, owned and operated by Sallie Potter. When Raymond Mikes, aging but speedy centerfielder, receives his release from Sallie after breaking his ankle in a game against the Philadelphia American Stars, the team finds a cause to rally around and break from Potter's domination.
Brashler's opening chapters have some weaknesses, as if he was trying to satisfy some novelistic conventions. There's a sketchy flashback to Bingo's childhood in Monkey Run, Alabama, and a silly visit by Bingo to the aging ballplayer, Scipio "Fox" Murphy. Once the team takes to the road, however, Brashler seems to hit his stride and the plot moves assertively to Louis making bets with spectators on Leon's pitching accuracy, the difficulties the road-weary team must work through, and gyrating party scenes.
The strongest writing comes in connection with the prejudice the team faces in the Midwest. In one incident, Bingo, Leon, and the others, are doing some fishing after a game in Beedle, Illinois, north of St. Louis, when they are confronted by law enforcement about not having fishing licenses. To get out of the sticky situation, the players defer to the white folks about the great Cardinal Dizzy Dean's pitching prowess.
Relating another incident of racial prejudice, Brashler's skill sparkles. One of the team's vehicles, Bingo's Auburn, begins to show signs of age and overuse as the team kicks up dust through Iowa. After discussing with Leroy Hawkins, the Ford dealer in Maquota, Iowa (a meaningful turn on the real town of Maquoketa), about a new vehicle, Bingo is broadsided by a local farmer's truck, in what appears to be a set-up. The fate of Bingo's auto is thus left in the merciless hands of Hawkins and friends, including the sheriff.
The team later avenges the set-up with a dramatic, suspenseful automobile sabotage and heist, carried out by Earl Sibley, the team's recently acquired third baseman.
Brashler also exhibits his literary skills with such devices as foreshadowing. For example, he has Louis Keystone playing cat and mouse with a white woman in a bar in chapter 5. In Chapter 7, Louis's appetite for white women results in him being sliced up badly enough he has to be sent home. Another example is the case of Earl Sibley. He's introduced in chapter 8 as hot tempered. In chapter 10, he carries out the above-noted auto theft. By chapter 15, his treachery boomerangs at the Stars, and he steals one of the team's cars. A final example of Brashler's well-executed foreshadowing is the prelude of prejudice the reader gets to the incident in Maquota. In the town before Maquota, a service station attendant bilks the team with some bogus auto repair. They then go on to meet the full-blown bigotry in Maquota.
A significant part of the novel takes place in rural America, including the great Maquota escapade. The Stars play numerous farm towns in Wisconsin territory such as Wilsie, Stocker, a prison team in Allamuchy, and a girls' softball team in Smithville. After a game with the Chinoot Four Baggers, the whole town turns out for dinner on main 2012-4-21
street, with the Stars as featured guests. The appeal of the game of baseball--no matter the color of the players--must have been the attraction in these small towns. To illustrate, in 1949, before television's influence matured, 42 million fans attended games in 59 minor leagues, a testament to the wide appeal of the game, particularly in smaller towns. Baseball is still important today across the country with teams in such places as Bend, Oregon (the Bucks [Co-op] of the Northwest League--SS-A), Martinsville, Indiana (the
Phillies of the Appalachian League--Adv. Rookie), and Kinston, North Carolina (the Indians of the Carolina League--A).
While Bingo's Traveling All Stars play a good number of games in Midwest hamlets, they play the best competition and make their best money in cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, and Kansas City. The players also find a supportive black community in the big cities. Plus, the players enjoy features of city life including movies, bars, and clothes shops in these major population centers. So, while baseball has a foundation in the rural areas, the game evolves to higher levels in urban areas.
The cities are not paradise for the black ball players, however. It is in the smaller Midwestern city of Madison, Wisconsin, that Louis Keystone runs into trouble. There is simultaneously the dynamic of Louis flaunting the well-known racial taboo of inter-racial sex. But Madison is an in-between locale, not really rural, yet not truly urban. By the way, Madison is currently home of the Oakland Athletics's A-league team, the Muskies of the Midwest League.
The team's travels through the midsection of the country have overtones of a military campaign, the actual battle being the rebellion against Sallie Potter's rule. Meanwhile, the black club in the midst of whites must stick together for preservation, and they face real adversaries like in Maquota when a melee erupts after a great play in right field by Esquire Joe Calloway.
Principal among the themes of the novel is the quest Bingo seems embarked upon in making his own way as manager of the team, out of the orbit of Sallie. And Bingo 2012-4-21
also symbolizes all the black ball players denied a chance to play in the white major leagues. His was a most hopeful, yet also desperate odyssey. He emerges victorious in his contest vs. Sallie, but he can't stand up to the entrenched rule that excludes him and his type from white baseball. The novel closes with the pathos of Bingo sighing that he was "born to quick" to see that promised land.
I wonder if Brashler and other white authors (like John B. Holway, Blackball Stars,
among others) writing about black baseball are not attempting to draw contemporary blacks into the mainstream of white culture represented by baseball. Their efforts show the following: Blacks play the American game; Blacks play the American games as skillfully as whites (as has been demonstrated in the white leagues beginning with Jackie Robinson); Blacks suffer injustice in being excluded from baseball and other parts of white culture. I think highlighting black baseball history is a viable method of promoting full participation for blacks in American culture, as well as acknowledging their contributions in the past. To this end, Brashler's tribute has both literary and historical merit.