I know what you might be thinking: “Who the heck is Leon Carter?” Depending on how strongly you feel about other fictional movie catchers, you may even be using a spicier swear word. That would be completely understandable.
Mere weeks ago, if I had seen this title, I too would have been doing an annoyed, incredulous click-through. A League of Their Own and Bull Durham are two of my all-time favorite movies, baseball or otherwise, boasting Hall-of-Dreaminess-level catcher characters. The dramatization of the pitcher-catcher love story has led to many charming catchers. It’s why I insisted that we have a category for “Delightfulness of Catcher Character” on the podcast I have with my husband, “Take Me In to the Ballgame: Grading Baseball Movies on the 20-80 Scale.” Whether it’s the angry but honorable Ray Schalk in Eight Men Out or Bill Dickey as himself in Pride of the Yankees, I usually kind of fall in love with the catcher character (yes, even if they’re a Yankee).
Leon Carter, Catcher for the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings
But now, folding in those of you who already knew about Leon Carter and just came here for your righteous vindication–because what greater use does the internet have–I am here to list my reasons that Leon Carter, played by James Earl Jones in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, is the dreamiest movie catcher of all time. I am aware that some of my fifteen reasons are personal, and they may not all apply to you. But I think some of these points approach the universal. For the rest, I invite you to come up with your own reasons that Leon Carter is the dreamiest movie baseball catcher of all time.
No, other answers not accepted.
On our podcast, we found that we had never seen Bingo Long before. Sadly, this is analogous to the relative obscurity of many of the Negro League greats. The movie traces the journey of a fictional barnstorming team run by players who break from their Negro League teams, but it contains many fun references to Negro League history. If you’ve never seen the movie before, let me recommend it now, particularly if you find yourself with more time on your hands. You will not be disappointed.
The images are pulled from this video on YouTube, but please rent the movie (available on Amazon/iTunes). The artists that bring you stories make their living by you paying to enjoy them, and most of those artists are not millionaires.
Spoilers are contained hereafter! But I do think that what makes the movie so entertaining will stand up, even if you read this first.
15. He stands up for the rookie.
When Bingo agrees to bring Esquire Joe on the team, Leon won’t let him give him a half-share. And at the end of the film, when Esquire Joe reveals that he’s been signed by a Major League team, Leon says, “Aw, shoot, Bingo, be glad for him. ” He knows he’s too old for it to happen for him. In the next scene, he foretells the end of the Negro Leagues. But he’s still genuinely happy for Esquire Joe. And when he breaks out into a beautiful smile, it is both heartbreaking and eminently lovable.
14. He warms up with four bats.
On the podcast, Eric calls this “a hero’s entrance.” On the podcast, I describe this as “like twelve” bats. Both feel true.
13. He espouses socialist ideals.
Although his words are “That’s the democratic ideal: be your own man.” His quoting of W.E.B. DuBois and Karl Marx, suggesting that players should “seize the means of production” gives Bingo the idea to create his own barnstorming team to get out from under the thumb of his heartless, miserly owner.
This one might not constitute dreaminess for everybody, but it sure does for me.
12. He has a stance like a righty Matt Olson.
Okay. I’m loading back-to-back reasons that might be particular to me, this time regarding my eternal love for Matt Olson as one-half of the A’s corner-infield Matts. See below tweet.
James Earl Jones is not in the Kevin Costner/Charlie Sheen echelon of baseball-player believability but I enjoyed that his batting stance was unusual, but unusual in a plausible way. And then I thought of Matt Olson, and was filled with joy.
11. He saves Bingo from the used car salesmen.
That seemed like the most fun way to phrase that. But when Bingo decides to steal his car back, Leon leaps astride his motorcycle and distracts the strangely-accented men at the used car dealership, just in the nick of time.
It’s worth mentioning that this is after Bingo had them all picking potatoes in a field all day. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a catcher.
10. When trying to make a getaway on his motorcycle immediately afterwards, he drives through a billboard.
9. Right after he drives through the billboard, he rides off on the runner of this car.
No one can call into question this level of dreaminess.
8. But also, he likes dancing.
After Bingo reveals that he has given away both his own share of the game’s profits and Leon’s share to the rest of the team, Leon says, “At least it don’t cost nothing to scuffle.” Here pictured, he is dancing with Bingo, having said, “Hey man, you got to get rid of that solemn look.”
7. “What owner you ever heard of being fair?”
Leon has many excellent lines (another favorite: “What do we never run out of in this country? White folks!”) but this line feels particularly timely to the current disagreements over compensation for the 2020 season. With owners backing out on their agreement to pay players pro-rated salaries when the players would be the ones incurring the risk to their health, it seems that Leon’s question is, in fact, evergreen. Sadly.
You know that if Leon were playing today, he would be standing up with the likes of Bryce Harper to support Blake Snell. Or, more likely, he would have his own, long, erudite Twitter thread, like foremost great-baseball-human Sean Doolittle:
6. He wins the final game.
Others could be tempted to put this higher on the list, given the importance of that final game to the fictional future of the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. It’s extremely dreamy, if completely illegal by the rules of baseball, that Carter jacks the fourth pitch of an intentional walk for a homer and wins the game all by himself. But it’s still only one game, versus a lifetime of boogie-ing, citing W.E.B. DuBois, and smacking other home runs.
5. He won’t be forced to clown around or “shine.”
When they’re asked to parade through town before their first game, Leon objects: “We’re a ball club, we ain’t no circus.” Though the sequence of their subsequent parade through town is delightful, and I am physically unable to keep still when the song comes on, you really feel for Leon in that moment. In a later scene, he also says, “I ain’t gonna shine for no white folks, and that’s that.” He just wants to be a ballplayer. It makes me love him so much.
On the podcast, Eric and I have a lengthy discussion about the potential implication of enjoying a movie that, on a meta-level, re-enacts the laughter that these characters had to incite to survive. Leon’s reticence to participate was one of my favorite tiny features of the film.
4. He punches out both of the henchmen with tied hands.
Okay, yeah, and also there’s this. Included in this are the fact that he punches himself out of a coffin with tied hands, and somehow moves a dead body from one coffin to another coffin…with tied hands.
The fact that he does all of this so that he can make it to the ballpark, driving the hearse directly onto the ball field, in order to save the team, is the most catcher thing in an entire universe of catcher-type things to do.
3. He’s well-read.
I have already alluded to this in a few of my previous points, but as its own reason, it’s extremely high on the list. He is all of these things–motorcycle-riding, Marx-quoting, henchman-punching, rug-cutting, four-bat-slinging, homer-jacking–and also, also, he reads. As he says to Bingo: “Try reading a book sometime.”
This is like the fact that in high school, J.T. Realmuto was both the all-star shortstop, starting quarterback, and had a 4.0 GPA. J.T. Realmuto has been sent from a superior race on another planet and now he is on the Phillies. For the love of all that is holy, Phillies organization, don’t let him go.
End of plea. For now.
2. He was inspired by Josh Gibson.
By which I mean, the character of Leon Carter is loosely based on Josh Gibson. However, I think it fair to assume that Carter’s production, as a player, is comparable to Gibson’s, even though we don’t have the full stats for either of them.
And this really constitutes reason enough for Carter to be the dreamiest movie catcher of all time, even without the overwhelming evidence of the rest of this list. Gibson is often dubbed “the black Babe Ruth,” although various people are attributed with the quip that Ruth should have been called “the white Josh Gibson.” But for a taste, Alonzo Boone was quoted on the Hall of Fame website as saying “Josh Gibson was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, or anybody else I’ve ever seen.”
And in Joe Posnanski’s superb and heartbreaking piece on Josh Gibson for his Baseball 100 series for the Athletic, he cites a litany of people praising Gibson’s incomparable talent. Monte Irvin said Gibson was better than Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. Buck O’Neil called him “the greatest power hitter I ever saw,” saying that he struck out less than Ruth, so it could be argued he was the better hitter. Walter Johnson said, “He can do everything. He hit the ball a mile. He catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. “
Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque boasts “almost 800 home runs,” which would certainly shatter the records of Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron. If only reliable records for Gibson’s homers existed, he’d be put in the greatest power hitter conversation. In his article, Posnanski estimates that he might have hit 65 in a season, mentioning that James A. Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues credits him with 962 homers. A number of periods that Posnanski discusses have Gibson hitting well above .400. And, according to reports, he hit homers at distances that should be elegized by Homer. On top of that, he had a missile-launcher of an arm.
And in our first view of Leon Carter, after he slings around four-to-twelve bats, he hits a home run, and he wins the final game the same way. This feels like a fitting Gibson-esque depiction. But if the Leon Carter that we’ve seen for the rest of the film were half the ballplayer that Josh Gibson was, his dreaminess mops the floor with any other movie catcher.
1. He’s James Earl Jones.
Every single choice that James Earl Jones makes, as an actor, is peerless. Grounded specificity watches James Earl Jones to take notes. Having recently rewatched Field of Dreams (for our episode of “Take Me In to the Ballgame” out on May 20), I can confirm that the top five moments in that film are James Earl Jones, and at least two of them are just him smiling.
If you remain unconvinced, call your doctor immediately.
Just remember to thank her or him for being a hero.
Episodes of “Take Me In to the Ballgame” come out every Wednesday as long as we’re living in a world without Major League Baseball (but go NC Dinos). You can find the podcast on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify and Anchor.
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