When one thinks of intelligent, well-crafted documentaries, Spike TV is not usually the first name that comes to mind. But the Dan Klores-directed Viva Baseball is a mature departure from Spike’s usual fare. The documentary has more in common with the HBO Sports lineup than Spike’s roster.
Viva Baseball recounts Latin America’s love affair with baseball and the plight of the early generations of Hispanic players trying to break into the American major leagues. But the doc is more than just a baseball history lesson, though it does an amiable job at that. It’s a study of Latin culture through the game.
The players who came to the states, primarily from Cuba and Puerto Rico, in the 1950s faced prejudice on two fronts: because of their skin color and their language and culture difference. A few Latin players had made it into the American and National leagues, but they were fairer-skinned “white Cubans” like the fiery Adolfo Luque.
Despite his talent on the field, Luque’s temperament fueled the stereotype of the hot-headed Latin player and may have delayed the inclusion of Hispanic players. Most of Luque’s contemporaries faced the impenetrable wall of baseball’s color barrier and were forced to play in the Negro Leagues, including Martin Dihigo, who is considered by many to be possibly the greatest player ever.
When Jackie Robinson smashed through the color barrier in 1947, he opened the door not only to African-Americans but to Latin Americans as well.
The ’50s and ’60s saw an influx of great Latin talent into the major leagues. First-hand accounts from many of those players — including Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and the Alou brothers, Felipe, Matty and Jesus — convey just how difficult it was for these men. When Castro took control of Cuba, many of them were cut off from their families and their homeland. But, like Robinson, they were pioneers.
Their actions paved the way for a new generation of Latin players in the ’60s and ’70s.
The centerpiece of Viva Baseball is Roberto Clemente. The Puerto Rico-born Clemente was perhaps the greatest Latin American player in the major leagues. He bore the burden of the Latin players, much as Robinson did for the black players.
Clemente dealt with racism from other players and the press and still managed to put up Hall of Fame numbers. Most of the interviewees point to Clemente as the paragon of the Latin ballplayer. His death in a plane crash on his way to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua cemented his almost mythical status among the Latin community.
The documentary also has a few current Latin players like Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez and the New York-born Alex Rodriguez, but they serve mostly as window dressing to lure in casual fans. Serious fans will be more than satisfied with the different perspective on the game that the documentary provides.
Viva Baseball debuts Friday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. as part of Spike TV’s Latino Heritage Month.