Collaborative GVSU effort produces two documentaries

GVL / Courtesy

GVL / Courtesy

Adam Knorr

Tucked deep in a corner, down a narrow hallway in Lake Superior Hall, a man sits, ready to share his stories.

The stories start in the World War II era, traversing through the Midwest, interacting with female trailblazers and Philip K. Wrigley of Chicago Cubs and chewing gum lore. The stories travel south to a rundown baseball stadium in Havana, Cuba, and brush up with foreign politics.

They link Babe Ruth, the Library of Congress, a man who once swam across all five Great Lakes and Grand Valley State University.

This week, GVSU professor and documentary filmmaker Frank Boring is inviting the public to come along for the ride.

With the help of GVSU students, professors and alumni, Boring and Co. will release two documentaries.

On Oct. 21, “A Team of Their Own,” the story of a women’s professional baseball league in the World War II era, will show in Grand Rapids, before making its rounds to 14 cities in the Midwest.

On Oct. 24, the crew will also premier “A Lesson in Diplomacy,” which documents the GVSU baseball team’s 2012 trip to Cuba.

While both stories shed light on historic events, the production of the documentaries themselves is plenty noteworthy.

Setting it up

Documentary filmmaking involves more than just a camera and script. Video editing, advertising, public relations and research, among other things, all play into the production of a good documentary.

Boring’s past in filmmaking helped him to understand the costs of hiring out those branches. His idea, however, was not to contract their services.

Instead, he found the talent right in front of him. In the seats of classrooms around GVSU, students sat, undergoing studies of the various duties of what it takes to make a documentary film.

The university approved Boring’s idea to use students for his documentary team. Just like that, students from a variety of disciplines left their lectures and joined forces to create documentary films.

“I was told that what we’re doing here is completely unique and should be used as a model for the entire country,” Boring said. “There are other people doing this, but not, to the best of my knowledge, on this level.”

A Team of Their Own

The story starts in the early 2000s, when Boring came to GVSU as a professor. Boring and his documentary team partner with the Library of Congress, which operates the Veterans History Project (VHP) – an effort to share the stories of U.S. veterans from wars spanning from World War I to the Iraq War.

“When I first came (to GVSU) 10 years ago and began the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, (James Smither) of the history department and I ran into a serious problem,” Boring said. “Everyone thought the project was all about guys with guns.”

Boring and Smither, the director of the GVSU VHP, saw an opportunity to draw the VHP stories from guns to bats. For Boring, persuading the VHP to approve his idea came down to one simple thought.

“If Rosie the Riveter is in there, why shouldn’t Rosie the Right Fielder be?”

The idea was approved, and the project began.

When the GVSU crew began working on the idea, it was not the only one vying for the right to produce the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).

Boring’s team was, however, the only group with a Library of Congress partnership.

From start to finish, the GVSU team carried out 46 interviews, mostly with former AAGPBL players.

The documentary traces the rise of one of the most unlikely sports leagues in U.S. history. When World War II began, Major League Baseball took a hit. A number of the league’s best players were drafted and went to war overseas.

The talent pool thinned in all levels of professional baseball and the public was rabid for the return of skill to America’s game.

With the help of former Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, that high-level baseball came back in a woman’s swing.

The AAGPBL formed in 1943, with just four teams. Wrigley soon noticed, however, that the women’s teams, which played in MLB stadiums, often outdrew crowds of MLB games.

The league expanded. The league changed. The league thrived. By the end in 1954, the AAGPBL grew to 14 teams, and gave over 600 women the opportunity to play professional baseball.

“That period of time, they came, they had their moments, and then they’re gone,” Boring said. “There hasn’t been (a league) since, and there never was one before.”

The GVSU documentary covers the league from its inception to its termination. Some of Boring’s team who started working on the documentary as students have since graduated and signed onto the documentary team as paid professionals.

Two of those people, James Christie and Melissa Nickels, are the film’s editors. Christie, Nickels and a number of other documentary workers had the chance to show a rough cut of their film at an AAGPBL reunion in South Bend, Indiana, in front of former players and their families.

“The reaction from them was phenomenal,” Christie said. “It was almost surreal. They were crying, giving standings ovations, they were hugging us.

“We’re doing much more than making an entertaining documentary. It’s about preserving their stories for one, and also we’re representing a whole group of people and their story needs to live on.”

A Lesson in Diplomacy

The second documentary, set to release on Oct. 24, profiles the trip of the GVSU baseball team to Cuba in 2012.

Every three or four years, a different GVSU athletic team takes an international trip in search of competition, exploration and learning. In 2010, then-head coach Steve Lyon learned it was his team’s turn. He suggested Cuba, and, after two years of navigating through bureaucracy and red tape, visas were acquired and the trip was approved.

The journey was filled with serendipity and good fortune.

Physical therapy professor Gordon Alderink was then the pitching coach for the GVSU baseball team.

On a chance meeting, Alderink linked up with Jim Dreyer, a man once well known for his ambitious swims across all five Great Lakes. The two men had played for the same baseball coach and met for breakfast with the coach one day while the trip was still up in the air.

Alderink mentioned how he thought the trip should be documented, but didn’t know where to begin. Dreyer mentioned how he knew a man at GVSU who may be able to help.

Just like that, Alderink was in contact with Boring. The documentary filmmaker was on the case again.

“If we’re successful, there are going to be other schools that will want to do this and they’re going come to us and ask how we did it, so we need to document this pretty well,” Alderink said. “Just writing down everything we went through, but I was also thinking of a film and so that’s when the idea came into my head.”

Boring sent film and video student Charlie Pryor along with the team to record the event. Along with Pryor and the baseball team were the coaches, GVSU Director of Athletics Tim Selgo and GVSU President Thomas Haas and his wife, Marcia.

The Lakers were in Cuba for six days. On days one and two, they did a bit of sightseeing and practiced. On days three, four and five, GVSU squared off against a team of 18 to 22-year-old Cuban All-Stars.

The Lakers lost all three in competitive fashion. It was not the outcomes, however, that mattered.

GVSU was, and still is, just the third American baseball team to play in Cuba. The Baltimore Orioles visited in 1999, and the University of Alabama went in 2008.

The event was historic, though the Lakers weren’t sure just how historic until they arrived.

On the scoreboard was just a set of letters displaying: U.S.A. The Lakers quickly realized it wasn’t just Laker blue that they were wearing. It was U.S.A. blue.

“When the game began, two girls brought out a Cuban and American flag and they sang both anthems,” Boring said. “I don’t know how often the American anthem has been played in Cuba, but I can’t imagine too much. The Cuban fans didn’t boo the U.S. team. They booed at a bad play or a bad call from the umpires. They were rooting for baseball.”

And baseball prevailed. The GVSU and Cuba teams swapped gear following the games. Haas posed as a first base coach for a game. The Lakers, on the last day, donated all their old gloves, bats, balls and spikes to a group of kids playing pickup baseball on a dirt field off the side of the road in Havana.

From top to bottom, the trip was an exercise in patience, effort and teamwork. Without the commitment and approval of GVSU’s higher-ups, the trip may not have been documented – or worse, never taken.

“If (Haas) couldn’t bring the world to Grand Valley, he was going to bring Grand Valley to the world,” Boring said.

For now, GVSU will be the only place to view “A Lesson in Diplomacy.” The film will premiere at Loutit Lecture Hall on Oct. 24 at 1:30 p.m.