HOUSTON- In the eyes of Baseball’s forgotten greats, the game still lags in honoring and respecting the history, the trials and tribulations of past players and the current challenges of Black players in Major League baseball.
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, but it took another generation of Black and Latino players to make the sport truly open to all. Playing in remote minor-league towns, these were the men who, before they could live their big-league dreams, first had to beat Jim Crow.
Behind the hidden truths and untold stories are gems of historical value that unlock vaults of knowledge to help Black athletes today understand and navigate in a world that continues to disregard their worth and value to the league.
A Long Way from Home
A Long Way from Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation is the start of efforts to collect that dying history and revive interest in the game among young blacks who are not as interested in the history of the game or its impact on helping propel dreams to the next level.
The documentary, by award-winning filmmaker Gaspar González, documents the experiences of retired African-American and Afro-Latino Major League Baseball (MLB) players who lived through the perils of racism, prejudice and the effects of Jim Crow laws and attitudes on the game and communities.
“Jackie Robinson is justly celebrated for breaking baseball’s color line,” González said. “However, what often gets overlooked is the prolonged struggle of Black and Latino players to tear down the structural barriers that relegated them to second-class status, even after desegregation. We felt strongly that that story needed to be told as well.”
The 45-minute film, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), chronicles the struggles and triumphs of the pioneering black and Latino players who followed Jackie Robinson, often playing minor-league ball in small, remote towns where racial segregation remained a fact of life well into the 1960s.
“How long does it actually take for baseball to be desegregated [after Jackie Robinson]? It takes thirteen years for all sixteen teams to include Black players, but you still have players that you would associate with the 1960s who are still breaking barriers through the minor leagues, said Matthew Frye Jacobson, Historian, Yale University and film writer. “These are stories that unroll really over 30 years and against the backdrop of a changing America.”
The film also sheds light on the decades long struggle toward racial equality for America’s favorite pastime through original and revealing interviews that also include former James “Mudcat” Grant, Tony Pérez and Orlando Cepeda, Octavio “Cookie” Rojas and Orlando Peña.
These former MLB stars endured racism on and off the field to pursue their big-league dreams – ultimately playing a significant role in making America’s pastime truly open to all.
González has produced documentaries for the BBC, PBS, ESPN, and others. His credits include the national PBS release Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, the Grantland short documentary Gay Talese’s Address Book, and the ESPN 30 for 30 Short The Guerrilla Fighter.
Joining Gonzalez to also tell their personal stories, challenges living through it all and current share insights about the game were former Major Leaguers Jimmy Wynn, Deacon Jones, J.R. Richard, Enos Cabell and Bobby Tolan.
Many shared their experiences throughout their careers that included being shunned and threatened by Whites across the North and South and having to experience name calling (N-Word) on and off the field.
Others faced issues with fellow Whites who did not want to accept the idea of playing alongside Black players.
With all of the hardships, though, the players recalled that the games in black baseball were just fun.
Jones said one of the main things was brotherly connection he felt between other Black players as each strived to stay together and support one another through though tough times.
Grover William “Deacon” Jones is a retired American professional baseball player, coach, manager and scout.
“All we wanted to do was play the game, but were forced to see hate up close and personal,” he said. “That experience made us stronger because it helped us understand life better because we had to live it.”
Black History and The Game
African Americans have played baseball as long as white Americans. Players of color, both African-American and Hispanic, played for white baseball clubs throughout the early days of the organizing amateur sport, according to baseball-reference.com.
As early as 1867, the racism of the post-Civil War era showed up in the national pastime: The National Association of Baseball Players, an amateur association, voted to exclude any club that had black players from playing with them.
Yet the racial tensions between white and black people that were present in society showed up on baseball fields. Cap Anson refused to play in a game with a negro pitcher, George Stovey at a game in 1887. This was a famous, but hardly isolated incident.
In that same year, the International League‘s Board of Directors voted against approving any further contracts with black baseball players. While black players continued to find a few jobs in other leagues, the move set into motion racist tendencies that led to the unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” a bar on black players in both major league and independent baseball clubs affiliated with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.
Black baseball developed its own network of formal, semi-formal and informal pro and semi-pro leagues. The progress of the leagues’ development was much slower, because they lacked both the economic resources and the political clout to evolve as rapidly.
The first professional black baseball club, the Cuban Giants, was organized in 1885. More teams sprang up. Sometimes they played in their own small parks. Some major league owners, smelling additional revenue, made deals with black clubs to play in the major league parks on away game days.
By the early 1890s professional black baseball was foundering, with only one ballclub in operation. Closer to the turn of the 20th century, though, that turned around and leagues began to emerge in two power centers: Chicago and the Midwest and the New York-Pennsylvania corridor.
In the dead ball era, black clubs were independent, without a real league. They played each other. They played semi-pro teams and barnstorm clubs. Some attempts at formal leagues formed and failed. Generally, each team booked its own schedule.
Rube Foster, a former ballplayer with a gift for organization, founded the Negro National League in 1920. A second league, the Eastern Colored League was established in 1923. These became known as the “Negro Leagues.” The Negro Southern League formed around the same time, but because of its distance from the East-Midwest power centers, and its poor finances, it remained independent and out of the loop from the other leagues.
The ECL was relatively prosperous but always unstable due to almost perpetual in-fighting amongst its owners. It folded in 1928. In its wake the American Negro League formed in 1929, but disbanded after one season. The surviving Eastern teams went back to the old system of booking games.
The Negro National League did well until 1930, when Rube Foster suffered a debilitating illness and died. Without a strong leader, the league entered into the Great Depression and folded, with its surviving franchises returning back to independent team operation.
By 1932, the Depression had hit new lows. Unemployment, particularly in the African-American communities, was sky-high. Without money to buy tickets, and without the patronage of white major league baseball, whose contract purchases kept many independent league ballclubs afloat, most of the teams closed, sending players scattering anywhere to find work. Barnstorming tours kept a few employed. The East-West League folded mid-season of their first year. The Negro Southern League used to working with less, became the defacto ‘major’ negro league that year because it could keep major league players playing. Many more players went to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Latin American nations to find work in places where their skin color would not be an issue.
Gus Greenlee and several others revived the Negro National League in 1933, piecing together teams from both the old NNL and the ECL leagues. As it was one league, the only rivalry between the two sides of it became the East-West All-Star game.
In 1937 the Negro American League formed with teams from the Eastern part of the country and survivors of the Negro Southern League as its core. The Negro National League realigned as a more Eastern league as well. The composition of the two began to mirror the white major leagues’ structure. From 1942 to 1948 the Negro League World Series was revived. This was the golden era of Negro League baseball, a time when it produced some of its greatest stars, and when it did so well financially that white baseball sat up and took notice.
Usual references to Branch Rickey‘s breaking of the color-line make it seem like some sort of Ghandian exercise in liberation. Certainly, from Rickey’s Methodist Midwestern roots, the racism of the sport could not have sat well. More importantly though, the Brooklyn Dodgers‘ General Manager was a fierce competitor, a shrewd businessman and an apt showman. He watched the full stadiums at Negro League games. He saw the powerful talents on the field. WWII had been a drain on baseball’s coffers, as many of their star players went to fight overseas. While post-war enthusiasm for the national pastime was good, Rickey believed that it could be better. Paying customers all had one color: The green of money.
So, with the stroke of his pen Jackie Robinson signed the deal that on July 5, 1947, signaled the end of the Negro Leagues.
The full effect was not felt until 1948, when stars like Satchel Paige were signed out from under the black clubs by white baseball clubs. The Negro National League folded again in 1948. Survivors moved to the Negro American League, which continued to play, in one form or another, until 1960.
The Negro Leagues produced scores of players who were on-par with their white contemporaries. Some notable players included pitcher Satchel Paige and catcher Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Hank Aaron. Aaron played with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, after racial segregation of the teams ended. Effectively though, the Negro Leagues ceased to be of ‘major’ quality after 1948.
The road was hard for black baseball players. Many towns had whites-only hotels and restaurants. Players slept in the homes of fans on good days, on the bus, in a barn, or the booth of a tonk or bar on not-so-good ones, and out in open fields on bad ones. Sometimes they had to keep moving rather than stop for a meal, where none could be found. Usually though, once a team had established its “route,” it also established a network of resources that would keep it running on the road that it would use in following years.
Teams from the different Negro leagues learned that they played for cash in those transit stops, and for keeps in games with other black clubs.
It would not be uncommon for a great black ballclub to lose a game to much inferior semi-pro or town team to keep the peace. Black athletes had far more to consider every time they took the plate, or appeared in public, than did their white contemporaries.
Historical Respect Well Deserved
Richard and Jones agree that Big League Baseball has not done enough to recognize the accomplishments and contributions of Black players and that many potential Black upcoming stars playing the game are being ignored.
is an American, right-handed, former starting pitcher in Major League Baseball who played his entire career, from 1971 to 1980, with the Houston Astros.
“All we want as Black players are to be represented, respected and treated fairly,” Richard said. “There are still some great players out here, but the opportunities for Black players are just not there and doors are not opening like in former days.”
He said the only way to change the system is to stand up, talk and speak out for the respect and fight for that respect.
“If we do not wake up, we will be like Native Americans who have been pushed aside and treated badly,” he said.
Reed is working to start a foundation to teach life lessons using the game, Black history and offer career and dream guidance for youth. He is seeking help from churches, schools and others to support his visits with young people at various locations.
Gonzalez said the real history of Blacks in the game is yet to be fully told, but seeks to recapture that flair for future generations.
“Baseball has done a better job of recognizing black players and their contributions to the game, but the story remains incomplete,” he said. “That’s the reason I made this film. I want the story to be told in fullness and with texture.”
The documentary premiered nationally on June 6 in D.C. and will also be screened in and Miami on June 27. To watch the trailer and learn more about the film, visit www.longwayfromhomemovie.com.
Information from baseball-reference.com/bullpen/History of baseball in the United States contributed to this story and the National Endowment for The Humanities
By: Darwin Campbell