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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