Most baseball fans — and, for that matter, millions who have never watched a baseball game — know that Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color line.
Many can even name the year (1947). What often gets overlooked are the players who followed in Robinson’s footsteps in the 1950s and ‘60s, players who, in many cases, had to fight the same battles as Robinson all over again. Our new documentary, A Long Way from Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation, looks to give those racial pioneers their due.
In the documentary, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), we chronicle the struggles and triumphs of such players as Grover “Deacon” Jones (an early African-American standout in the Chicago White Sox farm system), James “Mudcat” Grant (the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games in an American League season), and Jimmy Wynn (the Houston Astros’ first black star).
The film also features interviews with several notable Latino players who faced both the burden of Jim Crow segregation and the culture shock associated with a new country. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, who was born in Puerto Rico and came to the mainland in the mid-’50s as a young prospect, remembers the concern his father expressed over the “racial issue” in the United States at the time.
Cepeda would discover just how justified his father had been when, on one of his first minor-league assignments — in Salem, Virginia — he was stopped by a police officer for walking in the “white downtown” and promptly deposited in the black section of town.
Likewise, Cuban-born Tony Pérez, another Hall of Famer, recounts the racist taunts he heard as a young minor-leaguer in Macon, Georgia, as well as how difficult it was for a player of color — even one as talented as Pérez — to crack a major league line-up.
“In 1964, I was MVP of the [Pacific] Coast League,” he says, “and when I go to Cincinnati in ’65, I don’t have a job. You know what I mean?... They don’t give me a full job for two years.” And then there’s pitcher Orlando Peña, who, as the only non-English speaker on his Daytona Beach minor-league team in 1955, would occasionally get left behind on road trips when nobody bothered to inform him the team would be traveling.
Including the experiences of these Latino players alongside those of their African-American counterparts struck some as a curious choice, but my collaborator, Matthew Jacobson, and I believed it was important to do so because the struggles faced by the two groups were, in so many ways, similar.
They stayed in the same ramshackle motels (not the nicer ones, like their white teammates), ate their meals on the same buses because roadside dining establishments wouldn’t serve them, and endured the same racial epithets and (quite frequently) the same threats to their lives. For us, the ‘desegregation of baseball’ and the ‘Latinization of baseball’ — so often seen as two separate processes — were inextricably linked.
It’s a story that resonates in the current moment. This point was driven home when we hosted a series of screenings around the country this past June. On the occasion of the film’s showing in Washington, D.C., then NEH acting chair Margaret Plympton expressed the hope that A Long Way from Home would “inspire broader conversations about the changing meanings of race, equality, and freedom in American civic life and culture.”
The following week in Houston, 300 people came out to a screening and began to have that conversation. Deacon Jones and Jimmy Wynn were there, along with fellow former players J.R. Richard, Enos Cabell, and Bobby Tolan (all of whom are also in the film). “It takes a long time for people to understand, doesn’t it?” Jones commented to me during a break. We’re trying, Deacon. We’re trying.
Following a recent screening at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, A Long Way from Home will be available on cable network TV One via On Demand beginning October 1, with broadcast on TV One to follow in February.
A Long Way from Home, Hammer and Nail Productions, 45 minutes; Directed and Produced by Gaspar González; Cinematography by Jorge Rubiera; Written by Gaspar González and Matthew Frye Jacobson.
To watch the trailer and learn more about the film, visit www.longwayfromhomemovie.com.
Gaspar González has produced documentary programming for the BBC, PBS, ESPN, and others. His credits include the national PBS release Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, the Grantland short doc Gay Talese’s Address Book, the award-winning Havana House, and the upcoming A Long Way from Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation. His work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the American Cinematheque.