Donaldson gets on film, but still not into HOF

Kevin D. West (l) and Paul Irmiter
Photo by Charles Hallman

Sports Odds & Ends

Tony Oliva and the late Buck O’Neil this weekend finally entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. They are part of a seven-person induction class who are being honored either in person or posthumously on July 24.

Sadly though, another year will pass with John Wesley Donaldson still outside baseball’s hallowed hall.

Donaldson (1891-1970) is considered by many Black baseball historians as one of baseball’s greatest pitchers who played in segregated leagues in the early 20th century. His career spanned from 1908 to 1940 and he then became a scout. His life has been researched by Peter Gorton and others who have banged the drum slowly and loudly for Donaldson and his exploits to be fully recognized.

“39 Seconds” is a 90-minute documentary/live action film by Paul Irmiter. The title is from a barely 40-second film clip of Donaldson in action. “It’s the only footage of John playing baseball,” said Irmiter in an MSR interview June 25, the day the film was being screened at the Capri Theatre in North Minneapolis. 

The clip was taken from a 1925 game in Fergus Falls, Minn. and remained unreleased for decades. “It’s probably one of the rarest and oldest footages of any Black person playing professional baseball [at that time],” surmised the director.

The film has made the rounds since its premiere a couple of years ago with stops at the Twin Cities Film Festival and one in Kansas City.

“The thing that drew me into the whole project at the very beginning,” recalled Irmiter, “was really the history… I like history, and so I just became fascinated. They call it a movie about a baseball player, but then when I started figuring out the historical significance, that’s what really pulled me in.”

Casting director Kevin D. West, who also appeared in “39 Seconds,” added, “What I want people to learn is the accurate history of Minnesota baseball.” Donaldson played on Minnesota-based teams throughout his career, on barnstorming teams that swung through the state. West wants viewers of the film to “understand the historical contributions of John and how he contributed to the history of America. This is just another American success story that has been suppressed for whatever reasons.

“I think when all of our stories are told, and they are all brought to the forefront, it makes us all better,” said West.

Veteran actor Leonard Searcy plays Donaldson. He told the MSR after the June screening at the Capri, “I always believed that you got to know the role before you know the words.” He said playing the baseball great was challenging at times. 

“To be honest, a lot of those lines—actually all those lines—I didn’t learn them until 10 minutes before having to go [in front of the camera],” Searcy said. “It was an honor to play such a great, extraordinary person who was almost forced under circumstances to live much more of an ordinary life. He was so big.”

Irmiter told the Capri audience during a post-film Q&A, “One of the biggest challenges is to really dig down and be very, very careful about making sure whatever facts we put in there were as true as we can possibly make it.”

He told us during our interview that “39 Seconds” couldn’t be a straight talking film “because we figured out quite quickly that if we just set all this stuff [talking about Donaldson], people would fall asleep by 10 minutes. It’s to entertain… That was the key and it worked out really well.”

We hope Donaldson soon will get his due recognition not just on film but in Cooperstown as well. He has been overlooked for far too long.