We all know who Jackie Robinson is right? He became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball when he broke the color line on April 15, 1947, when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
After that, we as a society kind of fast-forward past what other Black players endured in MLB to improve racial equality for baseball players in the future. Yes, we acknowledge some of the Black players who became some of the greatest baseball players of all time such as Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron. But we often forget about some of the players that made sacrifices on and off the field so that current incredible baseball talents such as Mookie Betts and Tim Anderson can thrive now.
After Jackie focuses on three Black players who played for the St. Cardinals during the mid-1960s and refused to let their brown skin determine how they would be treated as men and athletes. Those players are first baseman Bill White, pitcher Bob Gibson and outfielder Curt Flood.
“We felt that the generation that came after Jackie hadn’t been covered at all,” said Stanley Nelson, the Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated executive producer of the film. “This generation did not have massive press following their every move. We really chose to concentrate on the St. Louis Cardinals to exemplify African Americans’ participation in the generation after Jackie. Once we chose to cover the Cardinals, it was natural to cover Bill White, Curt Flood and Bob Gibson.”
If you are unaware of those Cardinals teams in the mid-1960s, they played a brand of baseball that came straight from the Negro leagues. They were fast, incredibly skilled fielders and took chances on the basepaths. They brought “Negro ball” to the Major Leagues and won two World Series Championships as a result of it in 1964 and 1967.
But even though this documentary is not entirely about Jackie, it does touch on some of the aspects of his life that many baseball fans did not know a lot about.
“We’ve anointed Jackie Robsinson as a patron saint for breaking the color barrier,” said Andre Gaines, the critically acclaimed director of the film. “Anytime somebody does something where they’re the first Black person, they become the “Jackie Robinson” of that industry and that’s where the story stops. But our story really begins when Jackie retires. He’s operating behind the scenes as a mentor for this wave of guys that came in with Curt Flood, Bill White and Bob Gibson, that come in after Jackie Robinson as a support mechanism for what his true passion was, which was civil rights.”
In many ways, the experiences of Jackie as a player were mirrored by Flood, White and Gibson.
Flood, in particular, was a person that may have been most significantly inspired and impacted by the previous actions of Jackie Robinson.
“In Curt Flood’s case, he tries to move into a white neighborhood in Alamo, California that’s reminiscent of what Jackie Robinson had to deal with just nine years prior,” said Gaines. “Jackie was there to support Curt Flood when he was mounting the challenge against the reserve clause and MLB, which would be the birth of what we now know as free agency. And Jackie was there to support him in that endeavor.”
Flood’s part was especially important considering he was not interviewed for the purposes of this documentary unlike White and Gibson, before his untimely death.
“Curt Flood changed, not only baseball but all of sports, like no other person except Jackie Robinson,” said Nelson. “That’s why people are making $40 million for throwing a football or hitting a baseball or throwing the ball in a basket. That’s the only reason.”
Babe Ruth’s salary in the 1920s was close to $80,000. In the 1960s, some of the highest-paid players in baseball were still only making $100,000.
Nelson continues, “one of the things that I learned and I had no idea before we started making the film was the personal sadness that surrounded Curt Flood, and his decision to do that, and that he didn’t reap the rewards of it. And he in many ways, emotionally paid the consequences for it. But you know, he freed up sports from a system that was really unfair to athletes.”
The struggles that Flood, Gibson and White went through as teammates were in many ways just as hard as some of the struggles Jackie went through as a player. The documentary carefully shows you the brave actions these three athletes took to move the game forward as they were playing, and after they retired.
The two-hour documentary is set to premiere on Saturday, June 18 on The HISTORY CHANNEL in association with LeBron James’ Uninterrupted and MLB.
The film will feature interviews with baseball and civil rights historians and former and current baseball players such as CC Sabathia, Mookie Betters, Ken Griffey Jr., Joe Torre, Dave Roberts, Al Downing and Tim McCarver.