"There was always sun shining some place," William (Judy) Johnson, a third baseman in the old Negro leagues, once said. But for Johnson and other blacks playing baseball before Jackie Robinson, it always seemed to be shining someplace else.
The story of the men who stood in baseball's shadows for 60 years of apartheid, 1887-1947, will be told by those who lived it in an hour-long film preview tonight at 8 at the Smithsonian. The film will be on public TV around World Series time.
"It's oral history," says Craig Davidson, the Connecticut-based film maker who produced the work, along with Donn Rogosin, a sports historian from Texas. "I let all the participants lay out their story."
The wife of Vic Harris, manager of the old Washington Homestead Grays, "lays it out in the film," recalling a bus journey through Oklahoma. Seymour (See) Posey, light-skinned brother of the Grays owner, drove up and registered at a wayside hotel, to be followed a moment later by a busload of players, all black. "No, no, no," the hotel clerk said as he waved them away. "You can't stay here."
Some of the players will be at the screening, including Hall of Fame first baseman Walter (Buck) Leonard. Leonard and his teammate on the Grays, catcher Josh Gibson, made up baseball's most powerful one-two punch between the days of Ruth and Gehrig and those of Maris and Mantle.
With World War II taking away many athletes, owner Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators summoned Leonard and Gibson to his office to see if they'd be interested in joining the Senators, who, along with every other major league team, were segregated. Yes, they said simply, they thought they could make the team. Griffith dismissed them and they never heard from him again, although the struggling Senators may well have wished they had.
The filmed story, as recounted by Leonard, "is powerful stuff," Rogosin says.
Actor James Earl Jones provides the narrative between the interviews. Jones played Gibson in the film "The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars" five years ago, and is still trying to live it down. The movie was criticized by many Negro league veterans as a parody.
Jones hates baseball and plays it miserably. The shots of his home runs flying over the fence had to be made by firing balls out of cannons.
Black baseball "was a tremendously important cultural phenomenon in black America between the wars," says Rogosin, a professor at the University of Texas. "The story has been so badly treated, and so superficially treated."
Davidson has put together what he hopes is the "definitive" film story of that chapter of American sports history. He has amassed every known foot of movie film made of the Negro leagues, including rare shots of Satchel Paige pitching for the Kansas City Monarchs about 1941.
He has also gathered more than 1,000 photos and about 80 hours of interviews with veterans--many, like Johnson, now in their 80s. He was aided by Bill Miles, the foremost film documentarian on black history.
There is also rare footage of an American black team playing--and beating--the world champion New York Yankees in Venezuela in 1947. The Monarchs' Hilton Smith pitched a one-hitter (Phil Rizzuto got the only hit) and Newark Eagle third baseman Ray Dandridge, the Brooks Robinson of his day, hit a triple off Bill Bevens.
Dandridge tells of getting spiked by catcher Roy Campanella, later of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dandridge waited for revenge, at last getting the opportunity as he raced around third on his way to the plate, where Campanella waited for the throw. "I got you now!" Dandridge cried as he began his slide. "Needless to say," he says, "Campy ended up in the third row of the box seats."
Campanella went on to Brooklyn and to the Hall of Fame. Dandridge, just a little older, never got to the majors. He almost got to the Hall of Fame, however, just missing in the vote of the old-timers selection committee last March.
The film cost about $200,000 to make, Davidson said. Alcoa provided much of the funding and Davidson managed most of the rest.
John B. Holway is author of Voices From the Great Black Baseball League (Dodd, Mead, 1975)