John Donaldson: Greatness on film and how to help

Photo courtesy the Donaldson Network

I’m taking a break from my Buck Leonard series to highlight a really neat process taking place about one of the greatest but arguably least-appreciated black baseball legends — pitcher John Donaldson — and how you can help with the effort …

It is, perhaps, an eternal conundrum for Negro Leagues researchers, fans and former players and owners — how to get the average layperson to care about the history of black baseball.

All of us within the Negro Leagues community already know the ins and outs, the large and small, the challenges and successes to be found in the Negro Leagues of yore. We’re familiar with the names, the monikers, the stadiums, the managers and owners, the classic games. Why, because we love it, plain and simple.

And even enthusiasts of baseball history in general are knowledgeable of some of the towering figures and teams — Satchel, Josh, Cool Papa, Cyclone Joe, the Monarchs, the Grays and American Giants.

But then there’s the general public, folks who maybe check the MLB standings once in a while, or who watch a game on TV if they can’t find anything else to check out, or who go to minor league games for something to do on a Friday night. They enjoy baseball occasionally, but it’s only on the their periphery.

These are the ones we need to reach.

And Peter Gorton and the rest of the Donaldson Network just just be onto something in that regard.

John Donaldson was a fireballing, curve-balling African-American pitcher who, over the first few decades of the 20th century, became the first great barnstorming black player. He was Satchel Paige before there was Satchel Paige. The man traversed much of this country — including pretty much all of the Midwest — earning the respect of white and black fans with his immense talent, keen savvy and impeccable character.

What’s more, unlike many early barnstorming stars, Donaldson was caught on film, and a snippet of such footage — 39 seconds, to be precise — was discovered in 2011.

Which, quite naturally, thrilled Gorton, the founder and director of the Donaldson Network, which for nearly 20 years has worked tirelessly and toiled persistently to research every nook and cranny of Donaldson’s life and career.

Not only has the Network uncovered hundreds and hundreds of articles and box scores, but it’s also filled out a picture of the man behind the pitching greatness. Gorton and his peers have been able to draw a portrait of Donaldson’s character and his life, and in so doing have amassed a massive collection of information with which to spread the gospel and Donaldson’s overlooked, underappreciated legend.

The group succeeded in getting Donaldson inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame last year (the player was a Missouri native), and the Network continues to lobby for his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (and many pundits, including this one, believe Donaldson does indeed belong in those hallowed halls).

But once the 39 seconds of film footage of the pitching great emerged, the Donaldson Network struck gold in its efforts. With the film in their (pardon the pun) satchel of documentation, Gorton and his compatriots feel they have something — namely, something dynamic and visual — that can’t help draw in the general public to Donaldson’s story.

“It’s a key part of [their effort],” Pete told me. “We see the film as a stepping stone … We can take it to a different audience.”

As such, the Network has recruited a film production team to produce a documentary about Donaldson called, “39 Seconds,” which, as the title suggests, will center around the discovery of that vintage, rare film footage. (Information about the project can be found below, in the text of a press release sent out by the Donaldson Network recently.)

 

Courtesy the Donaldson Network

Gorton said he believes the documentary — which is slated to film this summer — could be a key component in the group’s efforts to expanded awareness of Donaldson and his legacy to the general public.

“We’re trying to take an extremely bold step,” he said. “We’ve got to get it out to everybody who’s never seen [Donaldson’s] story before. We’re going to be able to tell the story of John Donaldson and his greatness to more people.”

Part of that mission is to move Donaldson’s tale out from the shadow of more widely known figures for whom Donaldson actually served as a prototype and inspiration.

“We’re trying to push the envelope and tell people that way before Satchel Paige, there was John Donaldson,” Pete said.

The documentary will also show how Gorton and the Donaldson Network has been striving for 17 years to delve into and uncover the pitcher’s stats and his story. Pete said the group has piles of information from box scores and game covers — 403 career wins and more than 5,000 strikeouts, for example — to satiate any baseball nut’s curiosity and queries.

It’s been a long haul, he said.

“We are rock solid in our analysis of the baseball part of it,” he told me. “Let’s also tell a story about that challenge.”

Gorton acknowledges with a laugh that his mission crossed over into “a crazy obsession” a long time ago, and that he’s spent years and years pursuing his passion. He says that, yeah, a few people raise an eyebrow at first glance when they encounter him, but eventually, those doubters understand and support him.

“People say, ‘He’s nuts,’” Gorton said. “It is the ultimate obsession to tell this American story. We’ve worked so hard to figure out that story every day of the last 17 years.”

A still image from the film footage (courtesy the Donaldson Network)

The key is to allow the public relate to Donaldson and the pursuit of history.

“Yes, there’s baseball in [the story,” he said, “but baseball isn’t the biggest story. John Donaldson’s story can resonate with every single person out there.”

You (the general public and my readership, that is) can help bring the film production together. On Feb. 20 (Donaldson’s birthday), the group launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $43,000 to help fund the production of the documentary. Gorton said the raised money will be used to gather interviews with experts that hopefully will be part of the film.

While the $43,000 would only be a portion of the production budget, Gorton said it will nonetheless be a crucial part of the process.

You can link to the Kickstarter page here, and more information about the Donaldson Network and the film production can be found here. Recently published article about Donaldson, the Network and the documentary can be perused here, here and here. For any questions, contact Peter Gorton at pwgortonmb@hotmail.com.

Below is a lightly edited version of press release issued on March 5 by the Donaldson Network giving details of the film:

LIFE AND LEGACY OF THE GREATEST UNKNOWN BASEBALL PLAYER RESTORED

Tru Ruts Films and 612IM to produce 39 Seconds documentary film

Minneapolis — The film “39 Seconds” will star leading Twin Cities actors, Tru Ruts Films announced today. The film will shoot in in the summer of 2018.

John Donaldson, born in Glasgow, Mo., on Feb. 20, 1891, played ball all the way up to 1949, when he became the first black baseball scout for the Chicago White Sox. Then he disappeared, only to be buried in a unmarked grave in Alsip, Ill.

This documentary film will tell the incredible story of his life as a ball player and consider the hardships a black man at that time had to overcome — and why such a great man and legendary ball player just disappeared from the American story.

The documentary will highlight the career of John Wesley Donaldson, a left-handed pitcher known as “The Greatest Colored Pitcher in the World.” The Donaldson Network’s research techniques have been labeled by the Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research as “the most extensive research project that has ever been undertaken related to black baseball.”

Donaldson’s legacy required more than 500 researchers from around the world to make it happen. John Donaldson is known to have won 403 games, the most of any segregated pitcher in history. Combined with 5,034 documented strikeouts from over 550 different cities, the numbers are impressive.

The creative team for the film includes director Paul Irmiter; assistant director and casting director Kevin D. West; Tru Ruts executive producers E.G. Bailey and Sha Cage; researcher/story master Peter Gorton; editor Dane Whitehead; and leading actors and creative talent.

ABOUT TRU RUTS FILMS: Tru Ruts operations encompass motion picture production, theatrical and music production, film curation, and acquisition and development of new entertainment products. Its latest film, “New Neighbors,” premiered at Sundance in 2017.

The company’s film areas of interest include narrative shorts and features, Web series, music videos and documentaries. With a 15-year history, current Tru Ruts programs include the “America Now!” international program; Next Wave film series; the Sankofa Festival; and the Brown Cinema Cafe. For more information, see www.truruts.com.

ABOUT 39 SECONDS FILMS: 39 Seconds Films is a partnership between Irmiter 612IM and The Donaldson Network.

Related Links https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1039747489/39-seconds.

I’ll conclude this post with a quote from Donaldson himself, as uncovered by the Donaldson Network effort:

“I am not ashamed of my color. There is no woman whom I love more than my mother. I am light enough so that baseball men told me before I became known that I could be passed off as a Cuban. One prominent baseball man, in fact, offered me a nice sum [$10,000 in 1917] if I would go to Cuba, change my name and let him take me into this country as a Cuban. It would have meant renouncing my family. One of the agreements was that I was never again to visit my mother or to have anything to do with colored people. I refused. I am clean morally and physically. I go to my church and contribute my share. I keep my body and mind clean. And yet when I go out there to play baseball, it is not unusual to hear some fan cry out, ‘Hit the dirty n—–.’ That hurts, for I have no recourse. I am getting paid, I suppose, to take that. But why should fans become personal? If I act the part of a gentleman, am I not entitled to a little respect?”

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My Buck story: The book that started it all

The next installment of my project about meeting Buck Leonard. Check out some earlier installments here, here and here.

I don’t remember in which particular bookstore I found “Buck Leonard: The Black Lou Gehrig,” the autobiography of the Homestead Grays great that was co-authored by James A. Riley and released in early 1995. It might have been the Indiana University bookstore, or maybe it was a random Barnes & Noble (which, if it was indeed the source of the volume, is quite possibly closed now, a victim of the terrifying juggernaut known as the Internet).

But where I found the book isn’t as important as when I discovered it. That would be May 1995, shortly after my IU graduation ceremony. And even more significant was the emotional weight and psychological impact it had on me, for it came at a time when, despite receiving a bachelor’s degree — which I somehow managed to complete in the wake of my spiritual crises — I had tumbled into the absolute nadir of my life up to age 22.

In the months leading up to my graduation, I’d suffered two different mental breakdowns that, combined, completely wrecked my life, crippled my self-worth and decimated the hard-earned, carefully-established future I had made for myself in the world of journalism. Gone was my editorship of the Indiana Daily Student. Gone was my impending internship with the Louisville Courier-Journal. And gone — obliterated, really — was any internal sense or belief that life would somehow hold meaning from then on out. Optimism was swept away, hope was crushed into cinders.

However — and it took me years and years to finally wise my thick head up and realize this — what did remain was an incredibly deep and devoted support network of family and friends, people who had somehow weathered the shock of seeing their loved one mired in mental hospitals and receiving cryptic, morbid hints that I was thinking of ending my life. They’d held in their, more bravely than I realized at the time, and they had caught me as I was in free-fall, preventing me from disappearing into the foggy abyss of nothingness.

In addition to that blessing, one other good thing did come from the preceding few months — a deepening interest in baseball history, specifically the Negro Leagues. As I previously detailed here, one of my mentors, the late Dr. William Wiggins, had provided the spark of knowledge in me and then sponsored an independent study honors grant I’d received to study black baseball history during the spring 1995 semester.

While I pursued that research, I became further and further enthralled by the history and characters that had toiled and triumphed behind the curtain of segregation. It was then that I tripped over the name Buck Leonard, via a book about Josh Gibson. I learned that Leonard had been Gehrig to Gibson’s Ruth, that he batted cleanup behind the star-crossed, doomed slugging catcher — and that had come from and retired to Rocky Mount, N.C.

Which just so happened to be where I was headed to rebuild my life and my psychological foundation.

And, what’s this? I read. Buck Leonard just released an autobiography? Like last month? No freakin’ way! I gotta get that shit!

And, by golly, I did.

As I departed Bloomington, Ind., for North Carolina, as I burrowed into the back seat of my dad’s Explorer, that book was my reading material — and my initial, tentative steps back into the real world. In many ways, that book was one of my lifelines back to sanity and hope for the future, whatever it may be.

I was simply spellbound.

I now had an image of Buck Leonard coalescing in my head, not necessarily just a visual portrait of him, but also in terms of his personality, his character, his way of carrying himself. I formed a picture, even just casually through his own words on the written page, of a soft-spoken, reserved, modest man who bore the burdens and injustices of an age gone by — or one that we like to tell ourselves has gone by, not completely, but at least to the point where fairness, respect and understanding (however grudgingly on the part of some) have evolved enough to provide Buck Leonard the accolades, honors and recognition he so deserved after nearly a lifetime.

In addition to providing me with an introduction to Buck — the athlete, the man, the citizen — reading Riley’s book introduced me to the ever expanding, always passionate world of Negro Leagues research and writing.

The next step for me, naturally, was Robert Peterson’s seminal “Only the Ball Was White,” a brilliant revelation of another world that echoed across baseball history like a cannon in 1970. I then learned of all the writers and researchers — many who themselves have reached (although they’d never admit it) legendary status. Riley. Holway. Lester and Clark. Hogan. Heaphy. Dixon. Burgos. Coates.

There’s a whole bunch more, of course, but those are just the ones who have made the biggest impression on me, those who have further influenced my work, my passion, my view of the world around.

But Ground Zero, so to speak, was Jim Riley, Buck Leonard and Rocky Mount.

By this time, I was chomping at the bit to meet Buck Leonard. I had some info, I had an exuberant thirst for knowledge. I had goals, and purpose, and a light at the end of the tunnel.

Naturally, this excitement was tempered by a not-insignificant amount of nervousness. I mean, how to you even approach a Baseball Hall of Famer? How do you introduce yourself to a living embodiment of history? How do you, well, talk to a legend?

You start with the phone book. Actually, I didn’t expect a Hall of Famer to be listed in the white pages.

But, yeah, he was. Walter F. Leonard on Atlantic Avenue. Right there on the page.

I was astounded but also giddy with joy.

Which, of course, transitioned rather rapidly into anxiety as i stared at my parents’ phone. You know, the whole meeting a legend thing.

But I somehow managed to lift the receiver, albeit with trembling hand, and dialed the number. It rang a couple times …

A friend gets on board with Buck

Me and Calvin

For this post/installment of my Buck Leonard series (a couple earlier installments here and here), I wanted to highlight how the subject of the Negro Leagues and their history is so infectious that enthusiasm for it spreads from person to person effortlessly, including on a especially personal level.

The following essay is written by my dear friend Calvin Adkins, whom I met in 1995, right after I graduated from IU and moved to eastern North Carolina. Calvin and I worked together for a couple years in Tarboro, N.C., where, as it happens, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bill Foster lived for a couple decades after retirement.

When Foster was elected to the Hall in 1996, Calvin and I worked on a story about Foster’s connection to Tarboro for the Daily Southerner newspaper [which has, sadly, subsequently closed after nearly two centuries of publication]. As part of our reporting, we ventured to Rocky Mount to interview Buck Leonard about Foster and a host of other topics.

Below is a narrative penned by Calvin about that incredible day in which I passed on my love of the Negro Leagues to someone who has since become a lifelong, close friend. After his essay, I’ll add a few more notes about Tarboro:

When my good friend Ryan Whirty asked me to pen a column concerning our experiences in 1996 as journalists for The Daily Southerner assigned to write and photograph a feature story of Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard, I immediately said, “That’s been so long ago that I can’t remember anything.”

Since 1996 many birthdays have come and gone and pushed my age to six years over half of 100. At times it seems like I have forgotten more than I can remember. But I do remember shaking the hands of Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard.

I met Ryan when he was working at our rival paper, The Rocky Mount Telegram. Back then it was called the Evening Telegram. It was probably one of Ryan’s first full-time journalist jobs. [Editor’s note: It was indeed my first.]

More than likely, we met while covering the same story. All I can say is we became friends instantly. It wasn’t too long afterward that Ryan left The Telegram to work with us at The Southerner. I never understood why he left a paper with the circulation of about 30,000 to work for a paper with the circulation of about 10,000. I never asked him why, but just a little part of me would like to believe that he changed jobs because of our friendship.

Ryan was younger than I, but he was a gritty, intelligent, aggressive and thorough reporter. His investigative skills were like that of a veteran journalist. I covered cops and courts and was the main photographer for the Southerner. I also covered sports.

It was Ryan’s investigative skills and his love for the Negro League Baseball that led him to Mr. Leonard’s feature. Mr. Leonard lived in Rocky Mount on the Edgecombe County side of town. I heard of him, but the light bulb didn’t come on about his significance in the baseball world until Ryan shared his experience in the Negro League.

To be honest, I felt a little dumbfounded because a red-headed white man from Indiana had to tell me about an African-American Hall of Famer who lived in my home county. Mr. Leonard’s sparkling career should have been first-hand information for me because I am an avid sports fan and I am an African American.

From the time I received the assignment until the day that Ryan and I were going to travel to Mr. Leonard’s house, I was over the fact that Ryan had beaten me to a significant story. But most of all, I was thrilled to be assigned to take pictures of a Hall of Famer.

Since I knew more about the county than Ryan, he asked me to drive. During the trip, I can’t recall talking too much about Mr. Leonard as much as thinking about what type of pictures were best suited for Ryan’s featured story. We were shooting film back then. I had already placed a roll in my camera along with a fresh set of batteries for my flash. I was a little nervous but, if I had any solace, it was knowing that my job was going to be easier than Ryan’s.

When we arrived at Mr. Leonard’s house, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I recalled a very polite elderly lady opening the door. She greeted us with a pleasant, articulate Yankee accent with a small touch of a Southern flavor. She was expecting us and after a short greeting, she led us to Mr. Leonard who was sitting in his trophy room.

I can’t remember what he was wearing or whether or not he wore glasses. What I do remember is looking around in awe of the memorabilia that he collected. There were pictures, posters, bats and balls, and jerseys. It was the coolest little museum that I had ever seen. Other than on a baseball field, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to take pictures of Mr. Leonard.

During the formal introduction, I looked Mr. Leonard in his eyes and shook his hand. The handshake was proof that the then-89-year-old National Baseball Hall of Famer wasn’t feeble, but father time had taken some of the strength from his hands. Although the greeting formality lasted just a few seconds, it was something majestic about that handshake that I just didn’t understand.

In an effort to allow Mr. Leonard to get comfortable with Ryan and I invading his space, I waited a few minutes before I began taking pictures. Ryan did a great job of introducing us and easing into the interview. It wasn’t long before Mr. Leonard was talking to us like we were one of his teammates. I can’t remember the exact conversations, but I do remember that Mr. Leonard’s memory was quite phenomenal.

Ryan’s interview had Mr. Leonard’s undivided attention, which made my job that much easier. I took wide angles shots of Mr. Leonard showcasing his memorabilia in the background and also close-ups that detailed the personality of an aging Negro League player. While looking through my viewfinder, I realized that this was a special moment.

Mr. Leonard was a Negro League superstar who was good enough to have played in the Major Leagues but didn’t because of the racial divide in America. But he persevered. Because of his dominance, he was called the Black Lou Gehrig. In fact, Negro League star Monte Irvin said that if Leonard had been allowed in the Major Leagues, baseball fans “might have called Lou Gehrig the white Buck Leonard.”  

Ryan’s story was published in The Daily Southerner and I remember getting rave reviews from the community. The editor chose a close-up shot as the feature photo and Ryan’s word capture the essence of Mr. Leonard’s entire life. Ryan sent the story to the Associated Press, and they picked it up for other newspapers to use across America.

Approximately one year later (Nov. 27, 1997), Mr. Leonard passed away. On that day I remember reflecting back to shaking the hand of a Negro League Baseball player.

Postlude

That was Calvin’s experience, and I remain honored and delighted that he and I were able to share such a special moment through a meeting with a baseball legend.

I just wanted to add a few more thoughts to fill in some background on this tale. First off, a couple years ago I wrote a story about Bill Foster’s connection to Tarboro and the neighboring town of Princeville for the Raleigh News & Observer; you can read the piece here.

Second, Tarboro, as it turns out, has another intimate connection to the Negro Leagues, in the person of Hubert “Bert” Simmons, a pitcher/utility player for North Carolina A&T in Greensboro N.C., as well as local Negro minor league teams like the Raleigh Tigers (where he was managed by the aforementioned Foster), Greensboro Red Wings and Asheville Blues. His career culminated with in 1950, when he played for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro American League.

But Simmons was born in Tarboro in 1924 and spent his youth there. Although he settled in Baltimore following his hardball career, he occasionally returned to Tarboro for reunions and such. In several post-career interviews, Simmons discussed his childhood in Tarboro, including being barred from playing organized baseball at the town’s stadiums because of segregation, as well as the fact that his school, Pattillo High School, didn’t even have a varsity baseball team (it’s now a middle school).

Simmons was able to overcome those handicaps, however, and went on to shine at NC A&T before moving on to his pro career. At A&T Simmons guided the Aggies to multiple Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association crowns in the 1940s by becoming the ace of the A&T staff as well as the consensus best hurler in the CIAA. He eventually earned his bachelor’s from the school and was elected to the Aggie Hall of Fame in 1978. (One of his Aggie teammates was Tom Alston, the first black player for the St. Louis Cardinals. Another product of A&T around that time was James Robinson.)

While in retirement in Baltimore, Simmons became a high-profile community leader and baseball coach at the Little League, high school, college and American Legion levels. His crowning achievement was helping to establish what is now the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball in the library at Owings Mills, Md. He passed away in 2009.

But as I stated, Bert occasionally returned to Tarboro, including Pattillo High School reunions, which is where my buddy Calvin met him in 2002. Calvin, with his experiences visiting Buck Leonard with me in 1996 in his pocket, interviewed, photographed and became buds with Simmons, who signed a baseball card for Calvin.

This past November, when I voyaged to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, I spent a day in Tarboro and Princeville cruising around with Calvin, and he gave me the card signed by Bert Simmons. I was extremely touched by the gift, so many thanks to Calvin — for the card, for writing this article, for all the barbecue lunches, for coming with me to meet Buck, and for being one of the best friends a guy could ever have.