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Hochman: Cardinals legends Gibson, White and Flood profiled in powerful documentary 'After Jackie'

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During a poignant moment in the documentary “After Jackie,” the words of Jackie Robinson catch your attention and your breath: “I think that one day, white Americans are going to take a real good look at themselves and recognize the harm that they're doing to America — not to Black people, but to America.”

These words were said more than 50 years ago, yet could be said today.

“After Jackie” shows us perseverance from the perspective of three great Cardinals, and in doing so, challenges viewers to look at today’s issues from the perspective of a Black American. That’s a particularly important message on this Fourth of July weekend, as Americans celebrate freedom and liberty and justice for all.

“After Jackie” is on the History Channel this month, and you can watch it online (play.history.com/specials/after-jackie/full-special). To truly and accurately tell the story of baseball after Jackie Robinson — the ups and downs, the positives and negatives, the encouraging courage and discouraging dissension — the filmmakers zoomed in on St. Louis.

“After Jackie” tells the stories of Bob Gibson, Bill White and Curt Flood, teammates on the 1964 World Series champion Cardinals. Directed by Andre Gaines, and with help from executive producer LeBron James, the film features interviews with famous names, from Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., to perennial All-Star Mookie Betts to current Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty. And there is footage from a powerful, late-in-life interview with Gibson, who passed away on Oct. 2, 2020.

“There were all sorts of problems back in those days,” said Gibson, who played from 1959-1975. “And you were expected to perform with all of these other problems away from the field, which certainly weighed on you.”

The first 20 minutes of the documentary focus just on Jackie. And the remaining 65 minutes detail travails and prevails of Gibson, White and Flood, while weaving in Robinson’s influence on all three. And, sure, some Cardinals fans have heard some of these stories over the years, but having these stories strung together in one documentary is significant.

As for Gibson, who became an iconic Cardinal, one can wonder how his career would’ve unspooled if the club didn’t fire manager Solly Hemus?

“It was tough for me to realize that I was working for somebody that didn't like me because I was Black,” said Gibson, who was often relegated to bullpen work in the early years. “I just couldn't fathom that. …

“My personality, and what I was, is as a result of what happens around you. And a lot of times when you come into the ballpark and you're in a nasty mood and you start reflecting on your childhood and what has happened over the years — it has a great effect on you.”

The first baseman White made a history-altering impact on the Cardinals in 1961, when he met with owner August Busch to discuss the cruel inequity of player housing in spring training. The white players stayed at a nice hotel, while the Black players were forced to stay with Black families in Florida. This was nearly a decade-and-a-half after Robinson integrated the game. White spoke to the owner, human-to-human. There was business involved — Busch feared a beer boycott from Black fans if news got out — but in the end, Busch himself bought a hotel for the whole team to reside.

A five-time All-Star for the Cardinals, White followed Robinson’s example for breaking barriers. He became a trailblazing Black baseball broadcaster and then, famously, the first Black president of the National League. For those reasons, KMOX broadcaster Mike Claiborne said in the film: “Bill White, in my opinion, is the second-most influential African-American behind Jackie Robinson in the game of baseball.”

In January of 1962, Robinson invited a young Flood to Mississippi for an NAACP rally. It was an influential activism experience for Flood. After years of stellar play for St. Louis, he would challenge baseball’s foundation by the end of the decade. He famously refused to accept a trade to Philadelphia. He became a pariah. And a pioneer. He challenged the reserve clause. Took baseball to court. His case made it to the Supreme Court, where Robinson himself testified on Flood’s behalf.

But Flood lost.

“Sometimes people don't understand — he gave up everything,” Flood’s wife, Judy Pace, said in the documentary. “He gave it all up for the principle of — I own me. No one else can own me. And he really believed in this country and the rights that everyone should have.”

Of course, Flood’s fight was a forbearer to the birth of free agency.

He changed the game in a unique way.

The documentary also featured previous interview footage of Flood, who died in 1997. He spoke of the revered ’64 Cardinals. Along with Lou Brock, Flood, White and Gibson were Black stars on the team that won the pennant — and knocked off the New York Yankees in the World Series.

“Most of us felt an aura about us that made us very special,” Flood said. “And I guess it had to do a lot with the fact that we were such a mixed-up group of guys — and that we were overcoming all of the prejudice and all the BS during that very, very difficult time.

"It was something about us that drew us together, and even within the trouble that we were having as Blacks and as whites, here we were, living together, winning together and enjoying each other. It was an amazing turn of events.”

As for the director, Gaines had actually already captured the spirit of a St. Louis star in his first film. That was “The One and Only Dick Gregory,” which took the audience into the world of the late, great comedian, activist and St. Louisan.

“My goal in telling any story about historical figures, places or moments is to put those small pieces of history in their proper place,” Gaines wrote in an email, “almost like a museum curator who finds a precious artifact that deserves to go on display for all to see. I felt that way with my first film. I feel the same about Bill White, Bob Gibson and Curt Flood, and my hope is that audiences are inspired by what true sacrifice and perseverance looks like in pursuit of justice, liberty and freedom.

“What was most profound to me about each of their stories is that they represent a piece of Jackie Robinson’s legacy. Jackie opened the door, but then passed the torch to Bill White, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and so many other Black ballplayers who advanced his legacy each in their own right.

“None of them wanted, nor attempted, to measure up to their mentor and idol, but instead they followed his guidance and left not only the game of baseball, or sport, but also the world a better place than they found it. It is proof positive that if each of us does our part, it can lead to the total sum of greatness.”  

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