Throughout the winter, I’ll be examining the National Pastime from the standpoint of popular culture, in particular through movies, television appearances, memorabilia and advertisements. It’s remarkable how often baseball and pop culture intersect, sometimes in ways that are curious or funny or even downright bizarre. While some ballplayers have achieved notoriety for appearing in mass media (I’m thinking of Wes Parker’s appearance on The Brady Bunch), other examples are more obscure, but no less entertaining. So let’s have some fun with these situations when baseball steps out of its own beaten path and ventures outward to become part of the cultural mainstream.
There has been a long tradition of ballplayers appearing in film, dating back to the earliest days of motion pictures, when silent movies ruled the theaters. A more recent example, though not too recent, can be found in the blaxploitation films that became so prominent in the early 1970s.
For the uninitiated, blaxploitation films were originally targeted for a black, urban audience, but they also became popular with other ethnic groups and eventually gained mainstream appeal. These films, generally made on a low budget, featured a mix of good and bad features. On the one hand, they gave roles to talented African-American actors who were being ignored by the rest of Hollywood. On the other hand, these films often perpetuated the stereotypes that some whites held toward blacks. The films also contained countless ethnic slurs that spared no one, whether they be white or African-American.
40 years ago, an intriguing blaxploitation piece hit the theaters with the release of Black Gunn. This classic example of 1972 cinema stars former NFL star Jim Brown as the title character. The retired Cleveland Browns great plays what is billed as a “beefy nightclub boss” living in Los Angeles. When his brother, a Vietnam veteran, is murdered after the robbery of the “wrong people,” Brown seeks revenge against the local mafia. Although Brown is clearly the centerpiece, and is surrounded by such veteran actors as Martin Landau and Bruce Glover (the father of Crispin Glover), the film also features appearances by two well-known baseball players of the day, Vida Blue and Tommy Davis.
So what were Blue and Davis, teammates with the Oakland A’s, doing on the set of a feature film? Black Gunn was filmed in 1971, which just so happened to be Blue’s breakout season with Oakland. The pill-throwing left-hander, who also had a terrific overhand curve, led all American League pitchers with a 1.82 ERA, winning 24 of 32 decisions and striking out 301 batters in 312 innings. He drew huge crowds throughout the season, particularly on the road. Some opposing teams like the Yankees even staged promotions to capitalize on Blue’s upcoming appearance at their ballpark.
The media coverage given Blue throughout the season helped his cause for immediate fame; he appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Sport Magazine, and Jet, and even made the cover page of Time, a rarity for a baseball player. Blue also made guest appearances on two nationwide television programs, the Dick Cavett Show and NBC’s Today Show. Given Blue’s on-field performance, which earned him both the Cy Young and the MVP, not to mention his growing media celebrity, he became a logical candidate to make the transition from baseball to film. And so the movie poster heralds Blue’s appearance by “introducing Vida Blue.”
But what about Davis? While the veteran first baseman/outfielder had a fine season in 1971, hitting .324 in a platoon role and a scorching .464 as a pinch-hitter, he was hardly in the prime of his career and certainly lacked the household name status of Blue. Well, that didn’t matter. Davis happened to be Blue’s roommate; the two men were good friends, perhaps the closest of friends among the A’s. So it’s likely that Blue was able to convince the filmmakers to bring Davis along for the Hollywood ride.
In making his only feature film appearance, Blue played a character named “Sam Green.” (How about that, Blue playing a character named Green in a movie featuring the word Black in the title? How great is that?) The role was a small one, but Blue did earn fifth-place billing, right after Brown, Landau, Brenda Sykes, and Luciana Paluzzi, all established veteran actors. In the meantime, Davis settled for lower billing and an even lesser role, playing a character named “Webb.”
While Blue and Davis gave the film two well-known baseball names, they were outnumbered by the number of football players who appear in the movie. In addition to Brown, present-day NFL players Deacon Jones (who plays himself) and Gene Washington also made cameos, as did retired footballers like Bernie Casey (perhaps best known for appearing in Revenge of the Nerds) and Timothy Brown (of M*A*S*H fame).
All of these appearances, while interesting, don’t tell us about the quality of the film. Though I have never seen Black Gunn from start to finish, I have watched a number of clips and have read a sufficient number of reviews to offer some general judgments. As blaxploitation films go, Black Gunn is pretty much standard fare, and perhaps a bit above average for its genre. Though cheaply made, there is a good supply of fight sequences, funky 1970s music, and plenty of period atmosphere to make it a worthwhile ride.
In terms of acting, Brown is acceptable as the lead character. He has enough charisma and brawn to make up for a lack of technical acting skill. (He also appears often with his shirt off.) Landau, in contrast, overacts badly, especially when he is playing the role of a used car dealer, which is a cover for his true role as a vicious mob leader. By far the best acting is put forth by Glover, who portrays Landau’s lead enforcer. A prolific and talented character actor, Glover brings some gusto and humor to the role of a racist henchman. His performance also stirs up visions of his acting son, Crispin; the two share a number of facial mannerisms and speech patterns.
All in all, Black Gunn provides a relatively uncomplicated entertainment diversion that lasts 96 minutes. You’ll have to look closely to see Blue and Davis, but they are there, as are the full cache of football stars. As long as you don’t take the plot too seriously, you’ll be able to pick out some sports celebrities and enjoy a classic slice of 1970s culture.