'The Only Real Game' Explores Baseball's Long History in India's Manipur

'The Only Real Game' explores baseball's long history in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. Baseball Dreams, LLC

Jeff Brueggemann has had an interesting baseball career. He started off pitching for the Minnesota Twins AAA team in the late 1970s, but after tearing up his arm in an offseason job at an olive cannery, he began coaching, first for the Twins in the minors and later for Major League Baseball International in China. "Then they asked if I would be interested in going to India, and I said, 'Not really.'"

But the people of Manipur—a benighted little corner of India's northeast region—loved baseball, and a New York–based charity called First Pitch had enlisted MLB to send emissaries (as well as balls and gloves courtesy of Spalding) to instruct coaches there in the finer points of the game.

Persuaded by money as much as anything, Brueggemann arrived in 2006 without having learned a thing about his destination. "I went out to get a haircut at the hotel and freaked out everybody," he recalls. "I came back and the secret police were there, thinking that I had been kidnapped. I said, 'You need to tell me what's going on.' They said, 'There have been 145 assassinations the last year, 35 in the last month.' They never told us that kind of stuff. But I'm always up for an adventure."

The terrorism described by police after Brueggemann's trip to the barbershop is a residue of Manipur's violent history. Once a separate kingdom, with as much in common with Burma and Tibet as present-day India, mountainous Manipur was conquered by the British in 1891: The colonialist army destroyed the palaces and executed the leaders. Then in the course of India's gaining independence from Great Britain in 1949, Manipur was forcibly annexed to the new Indian Union. For the past 60 plus years, Manipur has been under martial law, with the Indian army and police doing daily battle with over 30 armed militia groups.

Baseball came to Manipur via the U.S. Army Air Corps. In 1943, as part of the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of World War II, Army pilots "were flying unarmed cargo planes over the Himalayas, often being shot at by the Japanese," says Mirra Bank, director of The Only Real Game, a documentary about baseball in Manipur. As part of the war effort, U.S. planes were bringing munitions, medicine and supplies to the allies and often hauling out wounded men and prisoners. The Japanese had already destroyed the Burma Road and bombed Manipur in preparation for a planned invasion of India.

"Flying the hump," as the CBI pilots called crossing the Himalayas, was a dangerous undertaking—"hours of monotony punctuated by seconds of terror," as one of the pilots recalls in Bank's film. To relax, they played baseball on landing strips they had carved out of the landscape, using a rock for home plate and mats for bases. The young Manipuris who were watching them became fans and ultimately players themselves.

Somehow it stuck. "We were all ball boys for our uncles," says one young Manipur man in The Only Real Game. "So it's like a feeling in our hearts, running in our veins."

It wasn't just for boys, either. When Brueggemann and his fellow MLB coach Dave Palese landed, they were surprised to see how many of their students were women. "We thought, and this may sound sexist, Oh, you gotta be kidding me! And then within a day or two we were like—whoah! These girls are serious about it. They're running, sliding on the ground, getting up and no girliness at all. They were right there with the men, and for that the men respected them."

Many of the women coaches were also mothers, and for them baseball can be a matter of life and death. Unemployment is 25 percent in Manipur, and intravenous drug use, as well as HIV/AIDS, is as great a threat as the daily shootings between police and insurgents. "If kids play sports with a coach, they stay away from the dangers," one of the moms says optimistically. And some of the women have just learned to love the game. "It means more to me than having a husband," one girl player says.

Bank, who directedLast Dance and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, came to this story via Muriel "Mike" Peters, a former diplomat's wife with deep ties to Indian film and culture. (She's also an avid Mets fan.) On a visit to Manipur, she found a "very hardscrabble baseball community," according to Bank, but one lacking in basic equipment, not to mention a dedicated baseball field. (Cows are seen wandering into the outfield.) "They came to her and said, 'We would be so grateful if you could help us.'" Out of that plea was born First Pitch: The U.S. Manipur Baseball Project, a 501(c)(3) charity. Bank's husband, Richard Brockman, is also on the group's board.

In the land of cricket, why has an interest in baseball persisted? In the current Disney film Million Dollar Arm, an American sports agent (Jon Hamm) tries to turn Indian cricket players into baseball pitchers—not an easy transition. Bank believes it is India's obsession with cricket that has kept baseball alive in Manipur. "In their own way, I think Manipuris are always trying to distinguish themselves and assert their uniqueness within Indian society," she says.

But don't look for any major league prospects coming out of Manipur soon. "As far as having quality players, they are so far behind," says Brueggemann. "That's a long ways down the road. But there's no other place in the world that has so much love for the game."

The Only Real Game (in limited release) does not have a Disney ending. Two of the players promised a trip to Yankee Stadium were denied visas by the U.S., and the dedicated baseball park that First Pitch tried to fund (and the Manipur government said it would support) has not been built. But it's a feel-good movie of another sort. Brueggemann and Palese are unlikely ambassadors for the game; each seems to have arrived with some reluctance, and they are appalled by the conditions there for different reasons. Palese, a short and stout Mutt to Brueggemann's tall and lanky Jeff, is jonesing for Budweiser and Kit Kats, but in one of the film's most moving scenes, he brings government soldiers, who have been warily watching them school the Manipuri players, onto the field to join the game.

And despite the conflict, Brueggemann says, "I never slept better in my life. I loved being there with those people. They made you feel like you were there on Earth for a reason. You saw how little they had and how much they were counting on the game of baseball to help their plight."