Q&A: 'Invisible Men' Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neil, 'Cool Papa' Bell To Be Seen On-Screen

Q&A: 'Invisible Men' Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neil, 'Cool Papa' Bell To Be Seen On-Screen

Sports Business

Q&A: 'Invisible Men' Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neil, 'Cool Papa' Bell To Be Seen On-Screen

An important part of baseball history was the Negro Leagues, which featured some of the greatest athletes ever to play the game, but also represented Major League Baseball’s pre-Jackie Robinson period when the game was strictly segregated.

A recently announced film project, Invisible Men, will seek to capture the stories of that era and put them into the context of baseball’s modern times.

Invisible Men centers around two fictional brothers who play in the Negro Leagues. The film follows them as they interact with characters based on such legendary Negro League stars as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Buck Leonard, “Cool Papa” Bell and Jackie Robinson; Negro Leagues owner and organizer Gus Greenlee; and MLB executives and players including Branch Rickey, Leo Durocher and Babe Ruth.

Invisible Men was inspired by Donn Rogosin’s book, Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). The film is being spearheaded by director/writer/producer Joe Cacaci, a lifelong sports fan whose resume encompasses film, TV and theater. He is working with New York-based Odyssey Networks to bring his original script to life. Odyssey and Cacaci are in the process of securing financing and no timetable has been announced for production.

Big Lead Sports spoke with Cacaci (pictured) about the Invisible Men project.

Big Lead Sports: Why do this movie and why now?

Joe Cacaci: I have always wanted to somehow tell the story of Negro baseball. I once pitched the idea to a few of the networks as a mini-series or even a prime-time series. But my idea was met with a fair amount of antipathy, to say the least. So, years later when {EVP/Chief Content Officer] Maura Dunbar approached me and said that Odyssey had the rights to Donn Rogosin’s impressive book, Invisible Men, in which he extensively and insightfully interviewed many of the legends of black baseball, I immediately signed on.

I think now is an even better time for this story to come out than when I first pitched it back in the mid-90’s. The race issue in America has never truly gone away by any stretch of the imagination, but the dialogue and much of the reality has changed significantly. I think that given the place professional sports, politics and the general culture have come to, we may be better prepared to see this story unfold than ever before.

BLS: Do you think Invisible Men can attract audiences beyond fans of baseball or sports movies?

JC: Absolutely. All the sports stories that have worked have done so because they made personal connections with the audience. And they did that by having identifiable and sympathetic characters. When I embarked on this project, I knew that my biggest obstacle was going to be crunching 60 years of history into two hours . . . There’s plenty of action in this film. As you can imagine, compressing the many events that took place into a short span of time, results in an extremely fast-paced movie. There’s also a healthy dose of humor throughout.

BLS: Why is the story centered around fictional characters?

JC: I did not want to make a “history” film or a biopic about just one or two of the legendary players. So I created a fictional family, whose two sons play in  the leagues, through which to tell the story. And they go through all manner of things that the players went through over the years. In this way, the rarefied nature of the tale — playing  segregated baseball in the 1930’s and 40’s — is made universal by seeing this family behave like any other family. They suffer together, they love each other, they have conflicts in exactly the same way a family in 2011 would. That part of the human experience never really changes and it’s at the heart of this movie.

BLS: Who are your favorite characters in the script?

JC: Well, that’s a little like asking who one’s favorite children are, but I’d have to say that Sam and Willie Clarke, the fictional leads, are right up at the top of the list. Although they are brothers who both possess superior athletic gifts, they approach things entirely differently. And this allows for a lot of humor and a lot of conflict [which is what] what any good story needs . . . I’m also a big fan of their parents, particularly their mother, who is both a driving force and the source of much humor.

Legendary players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck O’Neil come to life in the screenplay, as well. I admired Josh Gibson not only for his athletic prowess but  for his dignity and his absolute belief until the end that he would be the first one to be drafted into the major leagues. It makes him both a tragic [owing to his premature death] and heroic figure.

BLS: There have been projects about Jackie Robinson but few if any ever make it to the screen. What makes Invisible Men different?

JC: Every American sports fan and even most non-fans are familiar with Jackie Robinson’s ordeal and ultimate triumph. [But] most have no idea that his opportunity and eventual victory was the result of 30 years of Negro baseball. [That] has gotten little or no recognition, certainly not cinematically. Understanding the full significance of Robinson’s ascendance into MLB is impossible without understanding what went before. It would be like trying to understand what the election of Barack Obama meant [politics completely aside] without having knowledge of the Civil Rights struggle.

BLS: What do you think might surprise people most about the Negro Leagues?

JC: One thing that was abundantly clear from all the research is that these players, whatever tumultuous troubles they faced, had a hell of a lot of fun doing what they did. And that sheer joy and ensuing hilarity is reflected in the script. Satchel Paige alone provides endless pranks and one-liners to keep everyone amused . . . The main characters in this movie are all in their 20s and early 30s. So, the energy level is pretty intense.

BLS: What type of budget are you looking at?

JC: We’ve budgeted the film in the $18-20 million realm. That’s on the middle-to-high side for an independent film but very low for a studio.

BLS: Any stars you’ve been in contact with who could fit the roles?

JC: Not yet. Though I’d like to see Denzel Washington direct it.

BLS: Have you ever been frustrated that the concept has taken so long to reach this point?

JC: No worthwhile movie has ever been easy to make. It took the black payers two generations to achieve their dream of integration. So it’s fitting that our road to production takes us awhile. But we believe that we’ll get there.

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