Meet your neighbor... documentarian Craig Davidson
WESTPORT — For town resident Craig Davidson, interviewing groundbreaking baseball players, sitting down with astronauts or meeting the web of family, neighbors and scholars surrounding a key figure of the near past, has been a textured experience, offering moments that become a part of him over more than three decades creating documentary films.
“I’m a small cog in the world of film and television but I’ve had wonderful experiences and so too has my crew,” he said. “Sometimes the films inspire people — I hope it does.”
Davidson, 64, a documentarian and baseball historian working frequently with the Public Broadcasting Service, has crafted several documentaries exploring the sport as well as a documentary on novelist and philanthropist Pearl Buck, among other films he has produced, directed or written.
Davidson aims to tell stories people don’t know in a way that makes them understandable, documenting the changing pageantry of American life.
“They’re inspiring, they’re enriching, they’re people and institutions that I look up to,” he said of his subjects.
Davidson’s first documentary, “There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace: Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues,” was created about 35 years ago and has since spurred two additional films, “Pitching Man: Satchel Paige Defying Time” and a new project he aims to complete this fall.
The initial film — for which he interviewed former baseball greats including Satchel Paige, James “Cool Papa” Bell, Buck Leonard, Bob Feller and Hank Aaron — was met with acclaim, a “heady” time for naturally shy Davidson. The greatest accolade in his view was Leonard’s comment at a screening that the crew got nothing wrong.
“The rapport that we developed, I believe that the film was a great film because they entrusted us with their legacy,” Davidson said.
Telling the story of Negro League baseball, Davidson interviewed Paige, a Negro League pitcher with a long career considered to be among baseball’s best. About three decades ago, Davidson asked the former star how he would fare against players of the day. His response was that he’d pitch 15-15, and asked why, he paused and responded he’d break even because he was 75 years old, Davidson recounted, calling Paige colorful, though difficult to interview.
Thirty-five years later, Davidson is working on a third part to follow the two previous films about Negro league baseball, a story he’s wanted to tell “because of the struggles,” and how “it was hidden behind the veil of racial prejudice in the beginning.”
“I find that despicable. I’m intolerant of intolerance myself,” Davidson said. “The stories, the achievements...they weren’t covered by the national press, they weren’t covered in news reels. It was a story that was quickly fading away as they were passing away.”
Baseball and Westport have been lasting parts of Davidson’s life. A member of the Staples High School Class of 1970, his family moved to Westport from Long Island when Davidson was 7 years old. He grew up in town, apart from a family stint in Italy.
From Staples, Davidson went on to study at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and played baseball in intra-campus games. By the start of his 20s, he was a standout pitcher, garnering an invite to St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training in 1979. He pitched for less than a week before sustaining an injury that ended his professional baseball dreams, though the sport remained central in the Yankee fan’s life.
Davidson then worked in television news and California studios and launched a company with a friend creating commercials. The pay was envious, he recalled.
“But at a certain point there was something empty inside of me. There was something gnawing, telling me this doesn’t have great impact,” Davidson said. “I’m a story collector, always have been. Weaving stories together is really for me what documentary film is about.”
He moved back to Westport in 1986 to be near family. On the fence around his home is a bright mural of a Dodgers-Yankees baseball game in old Ebbets Field of Brooklyn that he painted with friends, including late artist and “local treasure” Howard Munce.
Besides the sports world, the Westport documentarian has also delved into other topics, including several series for PBS. His full-length documentary “East Wind, West Wind: Pearl Buck, The Woman Who Embraced the World” chronicled the life of the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
Davidson has donated film and materials from past projects to universities and in the future, plans to donate what he’s gathered documenting baseball’s past to the Library of Congress.