This documentary on Hank Aaron does a great job of depicting the level of racism Aaron faced not only as a ballplayer, but throughout his life. In spite of it all, he excelled on the field and made an incredible and lasting impact on the game.
I vaguely recall hearing a reference to Buck O’Neil’s thoughts on Ty Cobb at some point, but this might be the first time I’ve ever seen this interview. My hat’s off to Buck — I don’t think I could be nearly so forgiving and compassionate if it were me in his shoes. I’m so glad this man is finally going to be inducted in the Hall of Fame.
Baseball is a lot like the ivy-covered wall of Wrigley Field–it gives off a great appearance, but when you run into it, you discover the bricks underneath. At times, it seems that we’re dealing with a group of men who aren’t much different than others we’ve all run into over the years, except they wear neckties instead of robes and hoods.
The move of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles was before my time, and I sheepishly have to confess that I was not aware of this bit of history before I came across this short documentary by Vox. While these sorts of events are certainly not unique to Los Angeles, I do think it is important to ensure that episodes like this stay at the forefront of the public consciousness (or get introduced to folks who, like me, are not aware of these kinds of details).
That was the system they had in those days. That’s what they called states’ rights. States’ rights doesn’t mean much to the Negro. You don’t get justice with states’ rights. Which is a bad thing to happen.
~James “Cool Papa” Bell
The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.
Yesterday evening, I watched a documentary that explores desegregation in baseball in the years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. A Long Way From Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation takes a good look at the struggles faced by black and Latino ballplayers, which, as fans of baseball history know, continued in an intense vein for years and years following the 1947 season. A lot of times, our society has a tendency to stop with Jackie Robinson, and while Robinson’s role in the desegregation of baseball was undoubtedly important, we are doing a disservice to those who followed in his footsteps when we end the story there.
This documentary attempts to rectify this. It is full of interviews with players from those years discussing the treatment they received and the obstacles they faced, including being rejected service at restaurants, abuse from other players, teammates, and coaches, abuse from fans, and skewed reports in the newspapers. Many Latino players also faced a linguistic and cultural struggle on top of the racism. All these players knew that in order for them to make it in baseball, they had to play twice as well as their white counterparts.
The trailer for the documentary is posted below. You can access the full video here.
Bud Fowler was the earliest known African-American player in organized professional baseball, as well as the first to play on integrated teams. Born John W. Jackson on March 16, 1858, Fowler was the son of a fugitive slave-turned-barber. His father had escaped from slavery and migrated to New York, eventually settling in Cooperstown. The young John Jackson learned to play baseball during his youth in Cooperstown, but it remains unknown why he went on to adopt the name “Bud Fowler.”
Fowler learned to be a barber like his father, working in the profession to supplement his income while he played ball. He played amateur ball for a few years, and his first year of prominence in the game came in 1878 at the age of twenty. By this time John W. Jackson was calling himself “Bud Fowler,” and would be known by this moniker throughout his baseball career. On April 24, 1878, he pitched a game for the Chelsea Picked Nine, who defeated the Boston Red Caps, champions of the National League in 1877. He pitched some more for the Chelsea team, then played a few games with the Lynn Live Oaks, and finally finished that season with the Worcester club.
The Lynn Live Oaks were a member of the International Association (IA), considered by some historians to be the first minor league, as they operated in cooperation with the National League. Thus, with his stint with the Live Oaks in 1878, Fowler became the first African-American to integrate a team in minor league history, and thus the game’s first African-American professional ballplayer.
Continuing to support himself as a barber, Fowler went on to play for baseball teams in New England and Canada for the next four years. He then moved to the Midwest, playing for teams in Niles, Ohio and Stillwater, Minnesota with the Northwestern League.
Fowler initially signed with the Stillwater team as a catcher. However, after the club lost its first fifteen games, Fowler was put on the mound. On May 25, 1884, he led the team to its first victory, a 13-7 win over Fort Wayne. The team relied heavily on his right arm from that point on, and Fowler delivered, winning five of Stillwater’s first seven victories. All his time on the mound took its toll on his arm, however, and that season marked his transition from the battery to the infield.
Fowler signed with the Keokuk (Iowa) club in February 1885 where he quickly became the most popular player on the team as a second baseman. Fans and newspapers alike admired not only his abilities as a ballplayer, but also his intelligence and his “gentlemanly” conduct. Unfortunately, the Western League folded in mid-June due to financial reasons, leaving Fowler without a team.
After short stints in St. Joseph, Missouri and in Portland, Maine, Fowler signed with the Pueblo Pastimes of the Colorado League to finish out the year. The impression he left in Colorado became evident when the Rocky Mountain News commented, “A league of colored baseball players has been organized in the South. It is safe to say there will be few of them as good as Fowler.” The following season, in 1886, Fowler joined a team in Topeka, Kansas where he led the league in triples, helping Topeka to the pennant.
Fowler continued to journey from team to team, however, racial tensions were starting to become more and more pronounced. One Sporting Life article commented, “Joe Ardner, in one game he played, shows himself to be … far superior to the ‘coon’ Fowler on second base.” Around this time, some exclusively black baseball leagues were forming, though Fowler continued to play on integrated teams, in spite of the racism he faced. In 1887, however, nine of Fowler’s white teammates with the Binghamton team signed a petition demanding that Fowler and black teammate William Renfro be released or they would quit. Finally fed up with the struggle, Fowler requested and was granted his release from the Binghamton team in late June.
Shortly after Fowler’s release, the International League formally banned any additional signings of African-American players.
Fowler continued to play for various integrated teams in other leagues over the next several years. However, racism was becoming more and more of an issue. In the fall of 1894, conditions led him to organize the Page Fence Giants, an all-black team sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan. From 1894 to 1904, Fowler played and/or managed the Page Fence Giants, the Cuban Giants, the Smoky City Giants, the All-American Black Tourists, and the Kansas City Stars.
At the end of his career Bud Fowler insisted that he had played on teams based in twenty-two different states and in Canada. No doubt the journeyman characteristic of his long baseball career was due in large part to the racism factor.
Bud Fowler died on February 26, 1913 of pernicious anemia after an extended illness, just shy of his 55th birthday.
I don’t know how it is that I’d never heard of this movie before, but I stumbled upon it at the library last week, and I’m glad I did. Based on a true story, The Perfect Game is about a group of boys from Monterrey, Mexico who became the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League World Series in 1957.
The movie begins when César Faz moves to Monterrey, Mexico after being let go by the St. Louis Cardinals from his job as a clubhouse attendant. César seems content to drink the rest of his life away, but then he meets a boy named Ángel Macías, a wannabe pitcher who is crazy about baseball. Ángel convinces César to first play catch with him, then later convinces him to help recruit and coach Monterrey’s first-ever Little League team.
The Monterrey Industrials become an impressive team, and before long, they find themselves traveling to Texas to play on the competitive stage. Upon their arrival in the United States, they are met with racism, a language barrier, and visa troubles. Even though they are physically smaller than any of the American teams, the Industrials pull off a series of victories that endear them to the media and to fans. With some outside help and support from a sports reporter, a groundskeeper, friends and family back home, and some other unexpected sources, the team wins its way to the Little League World Series championship game.
I could go into more detail about the plot, but with this particular film, I feel more inclined to discuss what I like about it. Throughout the movie, the boys who make up the Monterrey Industrials are complete reverent about baseball. They consider it to be a gift from God himself, and when Ángel stumbles upon the first real baseball he’s ever held, he is convinced it was dropped from the sky by God. Ángel, who has a rough relationship with his father, is even willing to put up with his father’s shame in order to pursue his passion for the game.
In spite of how his career with the St. Louis Cardinals ended, César Faz also continues to show a love for the game. Twice he accidentally stands up a girl who has invited him for dinner. César is deeply interested in the girl, but he gets so caught up in coaching the team that he constantly loses track of time.
Beyond baseball, and sometimes even on the diamond, the movie tackles the issue of racism in the United States, against Hispanics and African-Americans both. It also highlights the kindness of people, even in the midst of a turbulent time. We see everyone from a diner waitress to the Secretary of State stepping in on this team’s behalf to help them on their journey through Little League baseball.
Overall, the movie has moments that are just so real. We see struggles with alcoholism, a strained father-son relationship, a death in a family, a clash of cultural differences, a love interest, harsh working conditions, and the juxtaposition of leading a practical life versus chasing one’s passions. I wouldn’t call The Perfect Game the best baseball movie I’ve seen (I hesitate to go that far with any movie, really), but it ranks pretty high on the list.