Student Post: Our Fathers, Our Heroes

Student: Andrea Maria Black
AOC: Music and Media through Technology and Performance
Home College: Brooklyn College
Expected year of graduation: 2022

Our Fathers, Our Heroes

In the fall semester of 2021, I decided to enroll in an Independent Research Film Study course at my home college, Brooklyn College. My professor asked if I knew what I wanted to make a film about. I mentioned a documentary short that would preserve the history and legacy of my father, Gilbert Hernandez Black and his baseball career in the Negro Leagues. The professor thought it was an exciting idea and recommended that I put an ad in the film department bulletin for a cinematographer and a lighting and sound person. It was a lot to do all on my own within a semester. She gave me an assignment of writing treatment about ideas and also assigned that I put together a pre-production schedule which included a shot list, locations where we’d shoot, and as dates and times for my crew. Afterward, everything I submitted was approved and I was then granted permission to borrow the equipment from the department. 

The locations for Day One were in Danbury, Connecticut at my father’s apartment, where he has a lot of memorabilia on the walls, and at the Danbury Westerners ball field, an organization to which he belongs. On the second day, I interviewed him and we shot at his weekend getaway on Putnam County Lake. The third location was at the renowned Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport, Connecticut where my crew shot and where I recorded myself singing to “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by Duke Ellington, accompanied by Mario E. Sprouse on the piano. I also brought onto the team a sound engineer from Brooklyn College who got credit from his independent research course study in music production. In addition, as the music supervisor, I found it appropriate to record “It Don’t Mean A Thing” because of its lyrical content and because jazz and baseball were like sisters during that era. Also, many celebrities, including Duke Ellington,  Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Louis Armstrong, to name a few, were aficionados of Black baseball and sponsored the Negro Leagues baseball organization. 

This spring semester, I enrolled in an Independent Research Film II course. I’m currently close to the end of post-production and working with two editors and a sound editor in hopes of completing an outstanding educational and entertaining project. At the end of the semester, I will also create a trailer and enter my film next fall into local and major film festivals, at various academic institutions, on PBS, and at the Klein Auditorium, where it will be premiered with sponsors.

Our Fathers, Our Heroes is a 30-minute short documentary I’ve directed about my father, Gilbert Hernandez Black and his passion for baseball during racial segregation in America. My father grew up in Washington Heights in New York City and as a child would sneak onto the Polo Grounds to observe many professional baseball games. He learned how to play the game by watching his idols, the great baseball giants such as Eddy Stanky, Alvin Dark, and Stan Musial, to name a few. My dad liked them because they hit hard and were so smooth. My dad often said that “ baseball was not for the faint of heart.” Mr. Black tells us that he fell in love with the Red Sox when his mother took him to see his first game at Yankee Stadium. As he approached his teenage years, Mr. Black’s mother moved the family from New York City to Stamford, Connecticut where he attended Stamford High School.

In the first segment of the documentary, my father talks about highlights from his childhood passion for baseball. As a child, he used to climb over the fence and go up into the upper deck at the Polo Grounds to catch baseballs. One day he recalled catching seven baseballs and from that point on had something to practice with. He also mentions that when he played in high school, his record was 15-1, meaning he lost only one game. He also shares that as a teenager, he played professional ball under the fake name Kenny Hart because he hadn’t graduated yet from his school, Stamford High. He shares that scouts discovered him while watching him beat other teams and offered him a contract to play in Quebec with the Milwaukee Braves Farm Club, although they ended up keeping him in the United States where he played in the South during the Jim Crow Laws. My father shared many incidents he experienced, such as when he and another Black player had to sleep on the porch while the white players could sleep inside in a nice hotel bedroom. My dad shared that one day when he played in Mississippi on a baseball field called Verdes Drake a sheriff drove onto the center field and walked toward my dad’s fair-skinned face, looked him up and down, shook his head, and went back to his car. Someone had called the police and told him there was a white boy playing with Black boys and in Mississippi that was illegal. 

Mr. Black mentions that his manager Bill Stankie was racist and got tired of finding a place for him and another African American ballplayer named Jim Proctor to eat and sleep. Stankie thus released them from the team with no respect for their contracts; that was the same year when the police murdered the young African American boy, Emmett Till.

At another location we shot in, the Putman County house, I interviewed my father and he spoke of memories during his adult baseball career with the Negro Leagues. He mentioned that they had heard of him and hired him, immediately giving him a uniform to join the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the many teams within the Negro Leagues. 

The Negro Leagues came about because whites didn’t want to hire Blacks on their teams, so a gentleman named Rube Foster organized Negro Leagues Baseball. Rube Foster was a former pitcher and had many teams under such as the Birmingham Black Barons, the Chicago Giants, the Detroit Stars, the Indianapolis Clowns, and many, many more. 

The Clowns were known for their colorful uniforms and brilliant skill. The Clowns had great players like Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige, and many more before they joined major league baseball teams down the road after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. 

My father is a retired former ballplayer with the Negro Leagues, a historian, an entrepreneur, and a former Vietnam War veteran who speaks about both the great times and the horrific episodes of the conditions between white and Black baseball in the south. He shared with us his oral history firsthand, not from encyclopedias. At the age of 87, he speaks about his love for baseball during segregation. Additionally, he gave honor and credit to his baseball heroes who impacted his life, shared memories about Hank Aaron, and Jackie Robinson, and also showed us the awards he received through the Hall of Fame in Milwaukee and the St. Louis Hall of Fame. 

Often, many family members take for granted the great talent and accomplishments of people in their family. Many of them paved the way for us. There are many unsung African American heroes who must tell their stories, be remembered, and remain historical figures for generations to come.