By James Corr
Last month, as part of his historic visit to Cuba, President Obama sat in the stands of Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano, taking in the exhibition game between the Cuban National Team and the Tampa Bay Rays. (The Rays won 4-1.) Roughly five years earlier, another baseball game between Cubans and Americans took place, much less heralded, but not without its own deep emotional and even political resonances. That game is at the center of Ghost Town to Havana a new documentary from Academy Award-nominated Berkeley producer, director, and screenwriter Eugene Corr, which opens the Oakland International Film Festival on Tuesday.
On Saturday evening, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, some 300 or so people enjoyed a free screening of this story of two baseball coaches — Roscoe Bryant, a 46-year-old African-American working a troubled Oakland neighborhood wracked by three decades of gang violence, and Nicolas Reyes, a 61-year-old Afro-Cuban from a Havana quarter that is rich in community but struggling desperately economically. Also woven into the film is the experience of a third hero, Corr’s own father — also Eugene Corr — who coached youth teams in Richmond from the 1950s to the 1980s.
I recently sat down with Corr, whose previous films include Desert Bloom, Prefontaine, and Waldo Salt: A Screenwriter’s Journey, at one of his favorite Berkeley haunts: the original Peet’s at Walnut and Vine, to find out more about how the new film came to be. (Full disclosure: Gene and I only recently discovered we are “long lost” second cousins — our grandfathers were brothers in a tiny village in County Tyrone, Ireland.)
The movie dramatizes the cultural differences between Havana and inner-city Oakland through the experiences of Coach Bryant and Coach Reyes, including their quite different family struggles. How did you first meet Coach Bryant?
I had just come back from Cuba, where I’d met Coach Nicolas [Reyes]. I was in Brennan’s, down on Fourth Street, asking if anyone could point me to a similar coach/mentor locally, and a friend handed me the “green sheet” from the Chronicle in which Scott Ostler had done a story on Coach Roscoe [Bryant]. I immediately knew this was the guy I was looking for. So I called him up and suggested the idea of a movie and we took it from there. The connection between the two coaches was obvious to me from the start — I understood the importance of mentoring. I had been guided, saved really, by Eural “Mac” McKelvy, an African-American coach in Richmond when I was growing up. A great guy. He’s the one who showed me where center field was, both literally and figuratively. And in my teens, he shared his heart and his life with me, really personal, painful stuff. I could easily have gone off the rails, but he made me think about my life and my future. That’s what these guys did.
And why were you in Havana in the first place?
Well, that was part of my response to George W. Bush and the whole Iraq war debacle. After protesting the war, I heard myself just ranting, which wasn’t a great state to be in, so I turned to a couple of other ventures. I ran a screenwriting program in San Quentin for a few years, I took time out to get a gravestone for my grandmother who’d lain in an unmarked grave in San Pablo for four decades, and I applied for Irish citizenship. I was on a quest for God knows what, and in the course of that — since Bush had intensified sanctions against Cuba — I decided I had to see it for myself. Even with the ban on travel for U.S. citizens in place, there were ‘back-door’ ways to get there. The quality of the play of the kids on the baseball fields, and the quality of the coaching just blew by mind — not only Nicolas Reyes, but guys like Pedro Almonarez and others there. They were completely dedicated to their kids. They weren’t just teaching baseball skills, they were teaching them about life. In that and other ways, Cuba reminded me of Richmond in the 1950s and also of what my father did for his players. But that is happening less and less in our society.
The central episode is the match in Havana between the two youth teams. This was long before the current breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, when it was still very difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba. How in the world did you pull that off?
We owed everything to Bill Martinez, a San Francisco attorney, huge baseball fan, as well as a music producer. He had brought a lot of Cuban bands to the Bay Area to perform, so he had connections in Havana, and with the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the obscure corner of the U.S. Treasury that granted permission for cultural visits to Cuba. But it wasn’t easy. I had to get insurance for the players and no US insurance company would look at us. Eventually, we managed to insure them through a Canadian company.
Meanwhile, behind those two stories of the coaches, you’re telling two other tales, one very personal, one a much larger social issue. Let’s take the personal one first — who was your father and how did you relate to him growing up?
My father was tough. He demanded respect and got it. Not from fear, but because he earned it. He would stand up to the police if he thought they were out of line. That was part of his Irish heritage — to him, as for his father, the police were a colonizing force. I think that’s what made him see things from the African-American community’s perspective in some ways. But he wasn’t dewey-eyed. 1955, the year the Contra Costa Comets won the State baseball title for the first and only time, he cut his three best players from the team — all African-American — because they missed practice twice in a row. There was a lot of love in his coaching, but it wasn’t always gentle.
Your father brought on and mentored several promising young African-American players, some of whom went on to have Major League careers. This was at a time when African-Americans still faced many barriers in the predominantly white sport of baseball. What motivated him to do that?
There was Pumpsie Green, who broke the “color line” on the Boston Red Sox, 12 years after Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough — and after his baseball career taught math and coached at Berkeley High for 20 years. There was Nat Bates, who went on to become the longest-serving African-American councilmember in Richmond. Marvin Webb — played for the Dodgers AAA team and succeeded my father as Contra Costa College coach. So many great players. The motivation? You know, I think some of that traces back to Ireland. His parents had just arrived here. They had their successes, and I don’t think they regretted moving, but they also had poverty and saw a lot of poverty around them. In that generation, my grandfather nearly lost both legs in a streetcar accident. His brother, Christie, lost an eye in the mines in Montana, his brother-in-law lost his legs in an industrial disaster. In all the extended family in Richmond, we used to say there wasn’t one complete man — you had to assemble one from the various parts! They got chewed up by the industrial mill. My father had a lot of anger in him, class anger, immigrant anger, but luckily for him he could run, and he got a scholarship to Cal and played on the baseball team. When it came to coaching, he tended to like the ferocious competitors, because that was how he was. And that was reflected in many of the black players who had that extra desire. But, let’s be clear, he had many favorite white players too.
Was he criticized for playing young black men?
Sure, especially in the early years. Later, one of his players told me that more than once somebody would stop by the team practice and say something along the lines: “Why you got so many colored players on your team?” His reply was: “I don’t play color, I play talent.” Back then, there were even some — not all by any means — sports writers who would not list the names of the African-American players in their reports, only the white players.
The movie is funny and exciting, but it also has scenes of poignancy and near despair. When you started out chasing the story of baseball and mentorship, did you know you would get to this depth of social realism?
Yes, I knew. I knew that both these guys would have struggles and challenges, their own and their kids’ — the dramatic material would emerge. And it did. Although I couldn’t pitch that to the finance types. You’re going to follow a couple of coaches around and see what happens? What happened was life. And the other part is that with mentoring, some of the things these coaches do doesn’t show up for 10 or 20 years when somebody finally appreciates what they were taught. But I couldn’t follow them or their players for 20 years!
The film touches on, and laments, the loss of role models for young African-American males, especially the inner-city coaches and mentors in baseball. What lies behind that? Why is baseball different in that respect from football and basketball?
At the youth level, coaching in the US is a voluntary activity. And to volunteer, you need to have time and money. That means you need to have a decent, steady job. In the 50s and 60s, there were solid working class jobs in places like Richmond and Oakland, paying union wages. Those industries are long gone and people are scrambling to make a living. It’s very hard to find the people, not only the men, but the moms too, who can afford the time and energy to coach several dozen kids when they’re scrambling from pay-check to pay-check, maybe having to hold down two jobs to get by. And, as the movie makes clear, coaching is not just imparting skills, it’s mentoring, it’s taking an interest in the lives of the young guys under your care. That calls for a high degree of commitment. Also, the alternative sports like football and basketball can dangle lucrative college scholarships in front of the best talent — there’s not so much of that in baseball.
Do you believe this situation can be reversed?
I do. One way forward would be for the professional teams, like the S. F. Giants and the Oakland As, to fund inner-city baseball programs, build youth leagues. The suburbs can take care of themselves. We mention in the movie that Mill Valley, population 14,000, has 31 youth baseball teams. Richmond, population 100,000, mostly African-American or Hispanic, has two. The pro teams could pay the coaches a modest amount. Yes, clubs have some programs to support youth baseball, but it doesn’t match the scale of the problem. Public money would also help to build up Parks and Recs Departments to what they once were. So, I think it could be done, but I can’t say it will be easy.
‘Ghost Town to Havana’ is now doing the film festival circuit. It’s a pity you couldn’t have arranged a screening for President Obama prior to his Cuba trip! What are the prospects for wider distribution?
Obama knows the issues in the movie. You can see that in the speech he made there. As for the movie, it’s a quirky beast — part documentary, without being advocacy-documentary, which is quite ‘in’ these days, part memoir, director-narrated rather than a trained voice. The audience reactions have been phenomenal. The reception in Oakland back in October was great, maybe that was to be expected for a home-town movie. But a couple of weeks ago in Sebastopol we had a standing ovation that just went on and on, almost embarrassing. And there was this woman in the front yelling at Coach Roscoe, who had come off his night shift that morning and had spent the entire day in Babe Ruth Day parades and celebrations, he hasn’t slept in 36 hours and he’s barely awake, and she’s yelling: “Coach, give me your hat.” He had no idea what she was going on about, but eventually, with her insisting so much, he reluctantly handed over his hat. She passed it around and it came back to the front with $1,035 stuffed in it for his Oakland Royals team. That tells me we’re reaching people. We have some more festivals lined up, including the Oakland International Film Festival this week, and we’re doing a tour of Southern states later in April. As to a wider theatrical release, that takes money and this movie has been made on a shoestring, more like a first-time movie. If we can find the right partner to market it — not my forte — who knows, it could happen. But that’s a big ‘if.’
And for you, what’s next?
I’m working on a play called Mud City, set in a couple of bars in a fictional city — part Oakland, part Richmond, parts of old San Francisco. It’s underwritten by the San Francisco Playhouse and I recently took a week off in Nicaragua, trying to hammer it into shape. There’s no deadline and still a ways to go. Stay tuned.
Ghost Town to Havana opens the 14th Oakland International Film Festival, screening at Holy Names University at 5:30pm on Tuesday April 5. Tickets can be purchased here. Director Eugene Corr and Oakland Royals coach Roscoe Bryant will be present for a post-screening Q&A session.
Jim Corr is a Berkeley writer/photographer, avid lawn bowler, and fanatical supporter of Glasgow Celtic F.C.
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