Love and Baseball

“Ghost Town To Havana” is a moving and powerful, if sometimes humorous, documentary exploring the power of baseball to change people’s, families’ and community’s lives. The film was made by Academy Award winning filmmaker Eugene Corr, who has a personal investment in the subject.

He had a troubled relationship, charted in the film, with his own father, a famed baseball coach in Richmond, in the Bay Area. Corr recollects, “My father was a ‘player’ in the womanising street sense of the word, sometimes had several girlfriends in the stands at games. It was a public humiliation for my mother. I was bat boy for the team. Kids often get caught in the drama between their parents, and that’s what happened. I ended up in a tense off and on estrangement from my father for many years. I no longer spent my days at Nicholl Park, as bat boy and young Comets mascot. It felt like I was cast out of the tribe, cast out of paradise. I didn’t return to Nicholl Park until I was 19, playing against my father for an Oakland team. I had a very good game against him, of course.”

The Bay Area has changed much since Corr’s youth; if Richmond was a solid working class district, Oakland has become desolate, ravaged by gangs and drugs, the ghost town of the title. Corr saw baseball as a way to trace the decline caused by decades of negligent government policy.

“Baseball is no longer central to American culture, it’s central to an affluent slice of white American culture. Youth baseball thrives in affluent white communities and the suburbs. It has been in steep decline in inner city black neighborhoods and poor areas of the country for decades. Poor black, brown, and white kids are essentially excluded from participation in the game. As income inequality has increased in America, baseball has become an upscale white game.

“Youth sports in America are run on a volunteer basis. If no one volunteers to coach, there’s no team, and kids don’t play. Most poor and inner city kids in the U.S. don’t participate in any organised sport, unless they are exceptional athletes, the top ten per cent or so. There is a mechanism to identify top athletes in poor neighbourhoods: prep schools and colleges offer football and basketball scholarships to talented young inner city athletes. College and professional football and basketball are dominated by black players, giving the impression that most black kids must be playing sports from an early age. It’s not true.

“The dominant conservative point of view in the U.S. is simply this: if parents don’t feel any responsibility to offer their children a chance to play organised sports by volunteering to coach or helping with the organisation of the team, it’s not the job of the government to do what parents should be doing. Richmond and Oakland once had thriving city-funded recreation departments that offered sports and arts programs with coaching, instruction, mentorship for mostly working-class kids, white, black, and brown. Nowadays, recreation departments in poor communities are under-funded shadows of their former robust selves. Decades ago, when more inner city fathers in working class Oakland and Richmond had stable union jobs, more volunteered to coach their kids youth sports teams. Mainstream conservative thinking today sees poor people, blacks especially, as coddled and advantaged by the government and therefore expect others and to take care of their kids. I believe the truth is a great distance from that opinion. I should say here “Ghost Town to Havana” is not an ideological propaganda film. As best I can, I’m filming what’s in front of me. It’s hard to point a camera at anything in my country today without seeing injustice.”

This injustice comes even more clearly into perspective when Corr trains his camera on Cuba, another country whose population are baseball fanatics.

“Since President George Bush had cut off almost all travel by Americans to Cuba after 9/11, I went to Cuba.

I happened upon a youth baseball game in Havana in the summer of 2007. The joy and skill of the young players, their love of the game, the intensity of parents and fans, the dedicated coaches, it all reminded me of Richmond, California in the 1950s, a tough industrial union city across the Bay from San Francisco. Jobs were still plentiful and baseball was King. Sitting in the stands at Juan Ealo Field, it felt like time travel, back to Richmond and Oakland days when and the stands at Nicholl Park were filled with fans, the play on the field was top notch, and my father coached the Contra Costa Comets baseball team to the 1955 California State Championship. The Comets were Richmond’s first integrated team and baseball was the most popular game in the growing East Bay black community. Within minutes of meeting Nicolas Reyes, a dedicated Afro-Cuban Centro Habana youth coach, I knew I wanted to make a film about coaches, mentorship, and baseball in Havana and inner city Richmond/Oakland today. I knew I would focus on two youth baseball coaches and their players, Nicolas in Centro Habana Cuba and a youth coach I would find in Richmond or Oakland. Both cities, once famous for producing dozens of gifted black ballplayers, were now known for crime, gangs, drugs, unemployment, and skyhigh murder rates.

“If you really wanted to know what Richmond and Oakland were like in the 1950s, you’d have to go to Havana.”

The two coaches Corr focuses on provide a telling contrast. “Coach Nicolas is a very warm and open man, a dedicated coach, and was willing to share the work that he does coaching the kids on camera because he is so proud of it. I also had the great advantage in Cuba of working with the gifted cinematographer Roberto Chile, who also co-directed the Cuban scenes. Chile had a strong rapport with Nicolas and a wonderful way with the Cuban kids. He’s a father himself and like most Cubans, he loves kids and has a gift for connecting with them. “

Stateside, Coach Roscoe Bryant would prove a more difficult subject, struggling to keep his baseball team together in the face of inner city violence, at the cost of his own marriage. As Corr explains, “there was a definite wariness on Roscoe’s part at the start. Part of that wariness has to do with racism and the racial fissures in the U.S. that separate blacks and whites. I’m white, Roscoe’s black. It probably helped that I have spent most of my life in mixed race cities and neighbourhoods. Still, race is always there. When I first asked Roscoe if he would participate in the film, he set ground rules for his participation. He was angry that TV crews came into is Ghost Town neighbourhood regularly to film the latest murder, drug deals going down on the corner, prostitutes and pimps – that the portrayal of his neighbourhood was always so negative. That wasn’t what I was trying to do; I wasn’t there to chase ambulances going to pick up the latest murder victim.

“Roscoe reads people exceptionally well; I think he mostly believed me. He told me he would agree to be in the film as long as there were ‘no pimps, hookers, drug dealers, or gang bangers’ in it. I agreed. At times, I admit it was very tempting to film the darker side of his neighborhood. When we started filming at his house in Ghost Town, the corner 75 feet from his front door was one of the busiest drug dealing corners in Oakland. People came from all over Oakland and from other cities, it was a drug destination with sometimes 50-60 drug deals going down every hour. It was like a MacDonald’s drive thru of drugs. We never filmed it. I kept our bargain. With a few exceptions, Roscoe and I got along very well.

“Filmmakers have sometimes asked me if I had an “exclusive contract” with Roscoe. I laugh. No, I didn’t. Trust was our only contract. If a documentary subject decides he or she doesn’t want to be in your movie any longer, what are you going to do? At one point, when Roscoe’s wife left him, he stopped answering my phone calls and for six months it looked like the project was dead. It’s the risk a documentary filmmaker makes. Roscoe’s fundamental loyalty was to his family, his neighbourhood and his players. When he came to see the film as serving those deeper loyalties, he was fully on board.”

Certainly, despite some minor culture clashes, Roscoe and his boys, many of whom have never left their district before, open up and enjoy Havana. Indeed, boys in Cuba from potentially similar backgrounds to the American kids seem to have a much better social structure to help them cope,

As Corr explains, “Well, families in Cuba are in better shape and tend to function well on behalf of the kids. It’s a child-centred culture. The Cuban government provides far better health care and education to it’s citizens than poor Americans receive. Cuba has many programs for kids – sports, arts, music, academic – and they’re available to almost any kid who would like to participate, regardless of socio-economic position or race. That’s simply not true in the U.S. Poor American kids, especially poor black and brown kids, are effectively excluded. The programs in Cuba are government supported (though many originate with volunteers). Government support is an anathema in the U.S. When I first encountered the abundance of programs and activities for kids in Cuba, I was suspicious. I didn’t believe it. When the evidence became overwhelming that the programs were legit, I concluded from my limited American perspective that Cuba must be the outlier among nations, offering so many wonderful programs for kids. While Cuba, a poor country, arguably does the best with the least resources, many of the wealthier developed countries offer strong government subsidised programs in athletics and the arts for poor kids to participate. The U.S. doesn’t.”

This leads Corr to a subtle critique of the American way of doing things, via the Cuban way – although he doesn’t romanticise that either.

“Cuba isn’t the outlier among nations, we in the United States are. And increasingly so. Among developed nations, the United States is dead last in terms of offering sports and arts programs for the children of the poor and working class. To keep a little balance here, as good as it is for children in Cuba, in 5 trips to Cuba from 2007 to 2010, I saw that life can be rough for their parents. What sometimes seems like a paradise for poor kids, can be very hard for their struggling parents. I can understand why Cubans in their twenties and thirties, having been raised by a loving family in a close neighbourhood and having got a good educational foundation, would be frustrated by the limited economic opportunities of Cuba, and decide they would like to try life in the United States. However, if we compare independent Cuba with nearby Puerto Rico (often referred to as “two wings of the same bird”), we will see that Cuban people, while not having it easy, have it far better than the people of Puerto Rico, a neglected territory of the U.S. Cuban functions; Puerto Rico dysfunctions.”

Ultimately, “Ghost Town to Havana”, while heartbreakingly moving at times, does offer some hope for the American kids, whose progress it traces after the visit to Havana. The film defiantly succeeds in Corr’s aims; “I wanted to hold up a mirror for Cubans and Americans to see themselves. I think the film does that. The challenge is getting the film seen on a massive enough scale to potentially make a difference. That’s happened more in Cuba than in the U.S. at this point. We’ve done some innovative things in distribution, something called ‘The Barnstorming for Inner City Baseball Tour’.”

Havana Glasgow Film Festival is only too happy to help Corr spread the message with this important film, screening in memory of Chris Bartter, an integral and much-missed team member of the festival.