Professor hopes next documentary is a home run

A University of Detroit Mercy professor is taking another swing at filming a documentary about a baseball stadium.

Jason Roche, associate professor of Communication Studies, was recently awarded a $17,000 grant from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council for “Step Up to The Plate,” a documentary chronicling the restoration and history of Hamtramck Stadium, one of five remaining former Negro League baseball parks.

It follows his award-winning 2013 film, “Stealing Home,” which focused on the restoration of the field at the site of former Tiger Stadium in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

Roche received a “project support grant,” which according to the Michigan Arts and Culture Council is a competitive award that “provides support for the production, presentation and creation of arts and culture that promotes public engagement, diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts and the strengthening or livability of communities through the arts.”

Community is at the core of Roche’s upcoming film, he said.

In addition to the grant from the MACC, he has also received a grant from the University of Detroit Mercy Professor’s Union.

Roche said he plans to use the money on post-production elements, including music. He’s also hiring communications students, or those who know how to use a camera and handle sound equipment. Those interested can contact him.

"My first documentary I did pretty much on a shoestring budget,” Roche said. “I shot almost everything myself. I had just the gear the school offered to me; the stuff my students are using. Now I’ve got some bigger ambitions.”

Roche said the music he plans to use in the film will be inspired by the jazz that Norman “Turkey” Stearnes – a Negro League legend who played at Hamtramck Stadium for the Detroit Stars – listened to at the time.

Stearnes is a major part of the stadium’s history and will be a big focus of the documentary.

Roche interviewed the daughter and grand-daughter of Stearnes, and hopes that the film will honor his legacy.

“He’s in the Hall of Fame, and his family can be very proud of his legacy,” Roche said. “I’m hoping that this film will honor them, as well as honor all the people who played at that field after baseball integrated.”

Roche’s two baseball documentaries share some similarities. “Stealing Home” centers around a group of volunteers who worked hard fixing the former Tiger Stadium field in order to restore it to playing condition. Now that same group of volunteers is fixing up Hamtramck Stadium.

Roche began filming the documentary in 2019 and hopes to finish it by next summer alongside the completion of the stadium.

“I can’t finish the film until I see the completion of the ballpark,” Roche said. “I wouldn’t feel like my film is done until their work is done.”

The completion of the Hamtramck Stadium is just as much as a milestone for Roche, as it is for the volunteers working on its progress.

The history of Negro League baseball is often overlooked. It is important that the community is actively working on the preservation of not only the stadium, but of the history of the league before the integration of baseball.

Roche said his ultimate goal with the film is to teach people about the stories that happened in places that look seemingly forgotten.

“Not many people know Negro League baseball history,” Roche said. “I’m hoping to change that.”