In early August, a radio broadcaster was fired for on-air comments he made about the San Francisco Giants’ Latino players and their 70-year-old manager, Felipe Alou. Larry Krueger, formerly the host of a talk show on the Giants’ flagship station KNBR, attributed the team’s poor performance this season to “brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly” and said that Alou’s “mind has turned to Cream of Wheat.”
The incident occurred too recently to be mentioned in “Viva Baseball,” Dan Klores’ fine documentary on the long struggle of Latino ballplayers, but it illustrates that some of the ignorance players faced in the 1940s and ‘50s still exists. As in his previous documentary, “Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story,” Klores mines a sport’s human and cultural elements, handling a rather large subject in a swiftly paced 97 minutes.
Marc Anthony narrates, but the film primarily tells the story through the players’ own voices. “Viva Baseball” reaches back to the 1860s, when young, upper-class Cubans brought the game to the island after attending college in the U.S., and follows its rapid growth throughout the Caribbean and Central America. While lighter-skinned Latinos such as Adolfo Luque, a tempestuous star pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in the ‘20s, were allowed to play in the big leagues, darker-skinned Latinos stayed at home or played in the U.S. Negro Leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
Interviews with players such as Tony Taylor and Tony Gonzalez show how, in addition to being discriminated against for the color of their skin, the players also faced an aggressively xenophobic language barrier on and off the field. Arriving from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking places, the players often began their arduous journeys playing for minor league teams in small Southern towns where simply ordering a meal could be an ordeal, if a restaurant would serve them at all. Even when they reached the majors, they were strongly discouraged from speaking Spanish in the clubhouse.
Klores and his editors, David Zieff and Gary Levy, adroitly weave in micro-narratives focusing on individual players and events. The struggles and triumphs of smooth-fielding first baseman Vic Power, whose flamboyance and penchant for dating white women kept him from being the New York Yankees’ first black player in the 1950s, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ outspoken, rocket-armed Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente and Nicaraguan pitcher Dennis Martinez, who overcame alcoholism to win 245 games and toss a perfect game, are highlighted.
The film also focuses on a generation of Cuban players such as Tony Perez and Luis Tiant, who were cut off from their families after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, as well as the Giants organization, which became the first franchise to build on a foundation of Latino stars such as Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Alou.
The film’s one disconnect is when it contrasts current stars such as Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez with earlier stars Cepeda, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and others through highlight clips and interviews. They are respectful and grateful for their predecessors’ trailblazing, but the contemporary players seem oddly dispassionate compared with their elders.
The contrast, inadvertently, somewhat dilutes the film’s sense of the obvious impact Latino players’ past struggles have had on major league baseball, where in 2004, 44% of the players hailed from Spanish-speaking countries.
Where: Spike TV
When: 9 p.m.
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for language)
Executive producer Lou Dibella. Director and producer Dan Klores. Writer and producer Charles Stuart.