Documentary highlights pioneers who paved the way for equality in baseball

Poster showing an African American baseball player with a bat over his shoulder
Professor Matthew Jacobson and director Gaspar Gonzalez interviewed eight players in minor-league baseball from 1949 to 1971 for the film.

Seventy years ago Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson’s entrance into the big leagues signaled the beginning of the desegregation of baseball, but the story didn’t end there. The men who followed Robinson into the sport — playing for minor league teams in rural areas across the country while facing relentless discrimination, ridicule, and even violence — were a vital part of making America’s pastime open to all.

These pioneering men are spotlighted in “A Long Way From Home,” a new documentary by Matthew Jacobson, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies.

Jacobson and Gaspar Gonzalez of Hammer and Nail Productions, who directed the film, interviewed eight former baseball players — James “Mudcat” Grant, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Pérez, Jimmy Wynn, Grover “Deacon” Jones, J.R. Richard, Enos Cabell, Octavio “Cookie” Rojas, Orlando Peña, and Bobby Tolan — as well as five historians to create the documentary. The film focuses on the years between 1949 and 1971.

The film, which was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, paints a picture of these young minor league players’ experiences and challenges.

I realized that we tell ourselves this story about Jackie Robinson breaking the color line, and meanwhile 30 years later players are still coming up and breaking barriers through the minors — the first player in Macon, Georgia, the first player in Danville, Virginia, and so on,” says Jacobson. They were playing, he notes, without the protection that Robinson had and also without the fanfare.

The concept for the film came to Jacobson while he was writing a book on the cultural history of the civil rights era and decided to include a chapter on baseball. While researching the topic Jacobson realized that there is nothing really comprehensive on the topic and that in order to do the story justice he needed to be able to “hear the stories through the players and their voices.” The book chapter morphed into an oral history project and then into the documentary film.

There was a surprising thread that ran through the interviews that had a particular impact on Jacobson, he says. “These players were simply not allowed to be injured. All of these men said this in one way or another: If you are black, you can’t be injured; you have to play through it. If you complain about it they think you are faking or are lazy.”

Jacobson learned first-hand how this played out while meeting with Richard, who was at one time a celebrated pitcher for the Houston Astros. During the seventh inning of a game, Richard’s fingers began to go numb. The team encouraged him to continue to pitch through it. Days later Richard suffered a career-ending stroke. The year was 1980.

We were so far beyond the Jackie Robinson moment when this happens,” says Jacobson. “To think that you could be the best pitcher in baseball and the whiteness of management would still keep them from taking good care of you is very shocking.

Certainly, there were some teams were better than others, but in a general way it was still really brutal,” he adds. “You were treated as a second-class citizen on the team in a certain way, even if you were a star.”

Violence also threatened some of the players who were profiled in the documentary. During one of the early years of the league’s integration, Cabell and his team had won a championship game on the road in Pulaski, Tennessee — home of the KKK. His team was attacked by the KKK who broke the windows out of the bus while they were in it. “They feared for their lives,” says Jacobson.

That was at one end of a very broad spectrum of what these players experienced to play the game of baseball,” notes Jacobson. “Some of them, like Grant, were very socially and politically aware. Others just wanted to play the game and succeed.”

Whether it was the fans, or the management, or the players’ teammates, there was a “dailyness to the struggle that really comes through in a lot of the stories that we heard,” says Jacobson.

The significance of these athletes playing in these rural, segregated towns is another major theme in the film. “The mere act of taking the field as an African American was such a public act of desegregation that it had an immense power on both sides of the color line,” says Jacobson. “Some of these ball parks were not just segregated spaces, but really sacred spaces of white supremacism.

This is a kind of civil rights and social history film more than a baseball film,” he continues. “If you love baseball then that’s icing on the cake, but you don’t need to love or know baseball for this to be a powerful film.”

A Long Way From Home” had its world premiere at Yale in June, and will be broadcast on TV One later in 2017. 

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Part of the In Focus Collection: While you were away: the summer’s top stories