Most people know the names Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, but few have ever heard of John Wesley Donaldson. How is it a baseball player whose career spanned over 33 years, who played for 25 different teams and had an impressive 405 wins and 5,034 strikeouts isn’t a well-known name in baseball history? Minn. resident Peter Gorton has been asking that exact question for over 17 years. He's working to change that, and White Bear Lake resident Rich Oxley holds a piece of film footage that's key to Gorton's efforts. Gorton’s passion began in 2000, when he began helping a former high school teacher with a book about black baseball players in Minn. After agreeing to visit the Bertha, Minnesota Historical Society to do research, Gorton found a poster of Donaldson.
After taking it off the wall and setting it down, Gorton got a big surprise. “I set it down on this little makeshift table with scrapbooks on it, and I looked down and there was a picture of me,” Gorton says. A photo of Gorton from a 1987 high school basketball game sat beside Donaldson’s photo. “I thought to myself, other historians had come looking for this guy and very few, if any would actually have a picture of themselves in there right next to Donaldson’s. So I realized right then, that I was the person who was going to be able to figure this out,” he says.
As years passed and more information about Donaldson emerged through various records, it became clear to Gorton that Donaldson was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. “It was time that we started to devote ourselves to changing the narrative of what people think about Negro League baseball and have John Donaldson be part of that,” Gorton explains. In 2006, Gorton sent a proposal to the Baseball Hall of Fame about including Donaldson. A Pioneer Press article about Gorton’s work to gain recognition for Donaldson caught the eye of White Bear Lake resident Rich Oxley, who had been holding on to something special for years: a 39-second video of Donaldson pitching. “Quite simply, it was the most revelatory moments of this whole saga,” Gorton says.
The 39-second recording was filmed by Oxley’s grandfather in 1926. Throughout his life, Oxley had heard all about Donaldson from his father and uncle, and believes Donaldson deserves a spot in baseball history. “If he would have been a white guy, he would have been playing in the major leagues. There’s just no doubt about that. He would have been a star,” Oxley says.
The 39 seconds of film is important, Gorton says, because it allows people to see Donaldson in action, and that has a profound impact. “Film footage of John Donaldson throwing the baseball and playing the game is the only way that we can restore his legacy,” Gorton says. “I've got thousands of newspaper articles that say how great he was, but people aren’t going to buy it unless they can see it.”
Gorton is working on a documentary about Donaldson’s legacy titled 39 Seconds. “It’s going to be a full-length feature film based on the 39 seconds of film footage,” Gorton says. “We’re going to be able to take John Donaldson from this can under a guy’s bed to the eyes of people throughout the world.”
It’s clear Donaldson’s legacy is secure in the hands of Gorton. “What I’m trying to do and what all of my efforts are around, is trying to get him known to people,” Gorton says. “His legacy is so much greater than what he was able to do on the baseball field.”