For Stanley Nelson, Baseball Proved That Desegregation Had a Chance

Stanley Nelson may not be as popular as Spike Lee or Ken Burns. That’s okay. Because, to some, Nelson is the god of documentarians. The New York City native has devoted his life to digging into America’s sordid, yet beautiful soil to unearth diamond encrusted stories of Black life in the United States. With a career spanning some three decades, the award-winning filmmaker has showcased the complicated greatness of Michael Vick, Miles Davis, and the Pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey. He’s tackled the civil rights and Black Power movements, showing how the Black Panther Party became the vanguard of the community, and how Black journalists used Black-owned newspapers to fight against racism. The latter, The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords, was even nominated for an Emmy. 

Born in 1951, when Jim Crow was still active, Nelson lived through what many of us consider history. After graduating from City College of New York in 1976, he broke his filmmaking teeth under the tutelage of William Greaves, a pioneering Black filmmaker. As Greaves’s assistant editor, Nelson learned the rigors of meticulous researching, editing, and potent storytelling. By 1989, he gave birth to his first film, Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madame C.J. Walker, a recounting of Walker’s journey from orphanage to becoming America’s first Black woman millionaire. 

As one to run the gamut of storytelling, Nelson’s 2004 film, A Place of Our Own, is a personal one. The then-53-year-old combined puncturing interviews with his father and meditations on the Black bourgeoisie to excavate a heartbreaking story of race, class, and assimilation. It shows how classism affects Black life and how families in Oak Bluff, a haven for elite Blacks in Massachusetts, experience the emotional heartbreak of being well off and insulated from the Black majority. Jeanine Primm, then 16 years old and dark skinned, recounts her pain of going to dances in town with a sea of light-skinned peers and not being asked to dance. We see the tears that fall from her eyes as she recounts how her father purchased an antique Ford, believing it would give his daughter stature on the Oak Bluffs Island.

In 2002, Nelson won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius” grant. And last year, in 2021, he was awarded Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary for Attica, which was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. In his latest work, After Jackie, produced by LeBron James and premiering June 18 on the History Channel, Nelson looks at the generation of Black baseball players–Bill White, Curt Flood, and Bob Gibson–who succeeded Jackie Robinson in the MLB and their fight for equality. “[This is] not to take anything away from Jackie Robinson,” Nelson explained during a Zoom call. “Jackie Robinson is one of the most incredible human beings in sports in the 20th century. He’s probably the greatest athlete of the 20th century because of what he did.”  Nelson spoke with Esquire about After Jackie, baseball greats Curt Flood and Bob Gibson, and activism. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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Esquire: It’s been said that Jackie Robinson wasn’t the best player from the Negro Leagues. But these players you profile in this film—Flood, Gibson and Bill Whitewho entered the league about a decade after Jackie Robinson show the talent that flooded the Negro Leagues.

Stanley Nelson: That particular St. Louis Cardinals team–with Curt Flood, Bill White and Bob Gibson– was everything that we described in the film. They played Negro League Baseball in the Major Leagues, and they were that exciting. They would steal bases, they would turn a single into a double, they would steal home. That’s why they won the 1964 World Series. They were that great of a team. 

I didn’t know that the league lowered the pitcher’s mound because Gibson was so good. They had to figure out a way to somewhat even the odds. 

Yes. Bob Gibson was arguably the greatest pitcher of his era. I forgot his ARI, but it was one of the lowest run averages ever. And, in that year, or surrounding years, he was probably the best pitcher in baseball. But that goes to show the type of talent in the Negro Leagues. Even though I grew up in New York, I was a Cardinals fan, as many African Americans were. The Cardinals had a bunch of Black players, and their Black players in many ways were the core of the team. 

Outside of excelling on the baseball field, who was Bob Gibson to baseball? Because the film is also about activism.

Gibson was a clubhouse leader for the Cardinals. This is right after Jim Crow. So that was unheard of. Off the field, he demanded that Black players be given the same respect as whites. He dealt with the Cardinals front office on his terms. As a result, the St. Louis Cardinals became one of the most inclusive teams of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. You must understand that many of these white players were sons of Jim Crow. In St. Louis, you have these self-assured Black men. Alongside Gibson, you have Bill White, who became the first Black league president in major sports. And Curt Flood, who eventually led a campaign against the league’s reserve clause.  

Yes, Curt Flood, it seems, did more for baseball off the field than he did on the field, and he was great on the field. 

Before the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, Curt Flood was already a trade unionist. Today, every player in the MLB has Flood to thank for that because there was a time when players didn’t have rights. The Cardinals wanted to trade Flood to Philly, which at the time was a dangerous place for Blacks to play. He didn’t want to play in Philly. But the players didn’t have leverage. It’s not like today, where players can decide who they want to play for whatever reason. So, for him to not play after being traded was unheard of. There was no legal room for Flood to negotiate. So, he sued the league. He lost, and it destroyed his career, but today, players have leverage to negotiate their trades. He sacrificed his career and mental health to give all players a voice. But on the field, he was probably the best defensive player of that era. He won the Gold Glove in ‘65. 

Why do you think we know more about Jackie Robinson than these men on this St. Louis Cardinals team? 

People don’t really understand how early Jackie Robinson’s integration into baseball was. It was in the ‘40s. Before the civil rights movement, before the Montgomery bus boycott. And at that point, baseball was the most popular sport in America. And baseball is a sport that looks at its history much differently than any other sport. Records mean so much in baseball. We’re still talking about Babe Ruth. No sport is like that. Jackie Robinson’s integration into baseball was really a first, and so incredibly important that it gave the world this idea that this segregation thing could be broken down peacefully, and the sport and our country would be better off for it. 

Also, opposite of Curt Flood and Gibson, Robinson was chosen to integrate the league because he wasn’t seen as an agitator. 

Jackie Robinson attended UCLA. Because he’d been around white people, he had a temperament where they could ask Jackie Robinson not to respond to the jeers, the chats and the negativity. And he could endure that. That’s also part of the greatness of Jackie Robinson. Not only was he incredible on the field, but he [was called] to represent for a good part of his career. Jackie Robinson was carefully chosen to integrate baseball in the same way that Rosa Parks was chosen. She didn’t get tired one day and refused to give up her seat. Rosa Parks was chosen to do that because she could carry herself in a certain way, and she could represent the race in what they knew was the come. 

Black news reporters, particularly Wendell Smith, were an important piece to Blacks being included in the Major Leagues. Can you speak on that?

African American newspapers existed in many cities around the country. And the Black sports writers were constantly advocating for the inclusion of Black players in the major leagues. One of the things that’s not known is that a team of white major league players– before Jackie–they would play Black players in exhibition games. So, everybody knew that Black players could hold their own because they held their own in these games. So, it was common knowledge that Black players were good, but the question was: was baseball good enough to integrate. 

As a kid, watching Flood, Gibson, and this Cardinals team, did you understand that you were witnessing history? 

No, I wasn’t interested in that. I was 10 years old. I was at the age where you really loved baseball. So, the footage of this Cardinals team was real in my house. 

Why did you want to tell this story now? 

Baseball has lost popularity in the African American population. So, it’s important to talk about the history of African American players, and the history of Black baseball, and know that it’s a long tradition and it’s an incredible sport. The generation after Jackie is just as relevant as Jackie. 

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