January 16, 2003

January 16, 2003

Jethroe movie pitched to Spike Lee

By Dave Richards

Filmmaker Spike Lee left Erie (PA) on Thursday morning with a bit more luggage than he arrived with.

Lee, who spoke at Penn State Behrend on Wednesday night, received a key to the city from the mayor's office, a painting from an Erie fan who's opening an African-American art gallery, and a strong movie pitch from Gary Horton, chief executive of the Urban Erie Community Development Corp.

In a private 15-minute meeting with Lee, Horton explained why he thought Lee should direct a movie about the life of Erie resident Sam Jethroe. Jethroe, who died in June 2001, was a Negro League baseball standout who eventually cracked the major leagues with the Boston Braves as a 32-year-old rookie in 1950. The fleet-footed outfielder stole a National League-leading 35 bases that season and was named the league's Rookie of the Year. After he retired from baseball, Jethroe operated a bar and restaurant under his name in his hometown.

Jethroe made national headlines in the mid-1990s when he filed a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball and the players' union, claiming racism had kept him and others from playing four major league seasons — the minimum to qualify for a pension. Jethroe lost the suit, but Major League Baseball in 1997 decided to award limited pensions to the players anyway.

"We think his story — his fight and his struggle — captured by someone as talented as Spike Lee could make a major contribution to this country in terms of the history of black ballplayers and the Negro Leagues," Horton said. "We believe Sam Jethroe's story illustrates the challenges blacks faced, trying to crack the color line.

"We know if not for a stroke of fate, he could have been the first black in baseball, and his name would be all over avenues and street names instead of Jackie Robinson's."

Coincidentally, Lee said earlier Wednesday that he has two sports-related pet projects he'd like to develop. "Both are about great American sports figures," he said. "One is Jackie Robinson. The other is about Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling." The American and German heavyweight boxers met in famous matches in 1936 and '38, when Nazi Germany used Schmeling for propaganda purposes.

Might Lee be interested in Jethroe's story? He seemed intrigued by the idea, Horton said.

"He was very receptive," Horton said. "He was definitely familiar with him. He brightened up."

Horton gave Lee a story line of Jethroe's life, as developed by several North Carolina sportswriters. He also gave him an autographed Jethroe baseball and a shirt emblazoned with a moniker Jethroe came up with himself — "Not the Property of Major League Baseball."

During his short stay in Erie, Lee also addressed reporters and attended a dinner with Behrend students and faculty in which he spoke his mind on assorted topics.

One point he made is that he's not interested in making a film about Martin Luther King Jr.

"He's a great American, but that doesn't mean I want to make a film about him," Lee said. "I did Malcolm X. Let someone else do Martin Luther King."

Lee also talked about college sports, especially the NCAA's policy that prohibits athletes from accepting money or gifts. "Look at the money athletes generate. If they make money for the school, they should get a stipend," Lee said.

Lee said he was disgusted when then-Pennsylvania State University running back Curtis Enis was kicked off the team in late 1997 because he had accepted a suit from an agent. Enis went on to play three seasons with the NFL's Chicago Bears.

"How many thousands of seats does Penn State have? How many games sell out? And he's gone over a $200 suit? Come on! The NCAA has to rework all this stuff. They're pimps; I'm going to be honest."

During dinner, Lee was more interested in listening to students than talking about himself or his movies. He talked New York Knicks — his favorite NBA team — and also spoke about R. Kelly, the rhythm and blues singer who is facing charges of having sex with a minor.

Lee said he's seen the alleged tape and can no longer listen to Kelly's music. A few students said they won't judge him until he's found guilty of a crime.

"But would you let your daughter be in a room with him alone?" Lee said, capping off his argument. "No," conceded senior Khalif Rhoades. "Thank you, thank you!" responded Lee, bolting upright and taking bows, while the table burst into laugher.

"25th Hour," Lee's just released film, isn't playing in Erie, but Lee said it will go into wide release.

Lee's speech was moved from Reed Union Building Hall to accommodate a large crowd of nearly 1,000 people.

A Behrend official said the two largest crowds for its speaker series were for the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Vice President Dan Quayle.