"The League" Review: Sam Pollard's Negro League Baseball Doc is charming and essential

“The League” Review: Sam Pollard’s Negro League Baseball Doc is charming and essential

To say that Sam Pollard’s documentary on the history of baseball’s Negro League is full of possibilities for the Hollywood treatment is an understatement. All the time I was watching The League, I kept thinking about what great narrative film could be made about this or that character, this situation or another. It’s a testament to the film’s power to bring history to life that it not only proves fascinating but makes one want to see nearly every episode of it dramatized – after all, it’s been a long time since its 1976 release The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.

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Receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival before being released in theaters next month, the film – based on the book The Negro Baseball Leagues by Bob Motley and Byron Motley — proves to be another flagship of the documentary filmmaker who has directed extraordinary previous works such as Mr Soul!, Sammy Davis, Jr: Gotta be meAND MLK/FBI, as well as executive producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, responsible for winning the Oscar Summer of the Soul.

The League

The bottom line

Long awaited.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Director: Sam Pollard

1 hour and 43 minutes

Casual baseball fans might be surprised to learn that the sport was indeed integrated in its early days, although black players made up only a minority of team members. That began to change in the late 1800s, due to racist white players like Pop Anson of the aptly named Chicago White Stockings refusing to take the field with the black jocks.

Black players were later banned from the game as Jim Crow laws overtook the nation. In 1920, black baseball pioneer Rube Foster – a pitcher, manager and owner – founded the Negro National League, using the phrase “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea” (borrowed from Frederick Douglass) as a motto. Three years later, competition emerged in the form of the Eastern Colored League and 1924 saw the first Colored World Series.

Foster, known as the “father of black baseball,” turns out to be one of the film’s most intriguing subjects. He pitched seven no-hitters and is credited with inventing the nut and teaching it to white New York Giants player Christy Mathewson, who made him famous. Foster met a tragic end after suffering the ill effects of a gas leak in a hotel room. He became delirious and was committed to an asylum for several years, where he died in 1930 at the age of 51.

The Negro National League succumbed to the economic pressures of the Depression, but other leagues formed in its wake. They provided the springboard for many black players who would go on to become legendary and, in some cases, eventually join the MLB, including Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Satchel Paige, among many others. We hear about these players and more in archival interview footage.

The documentary chronicles the players’ struggles as they toured across the country where in many places they were not allowed to stay in hotels or eat in restaurants. The league has also provided a home for many Latino players from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other places in Latin America.

After many black servicemen fought for the country in World War II, pressure began to build for Major League Baseball to be integrated, with Paul Robeson enlisted as a spokesman for the campaign. The move had been opposed for years by MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, whose name and face resemble a character from Birth of a nation. Landis died in 1944, and three years later Branch Rickey drafted Jackie Robinson to join the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he was soon joined by such black players as Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Jim Gilliam, all alumni of the Negro leagues.

Another of the film’s most compelling subjects is businesswoman Effa Manley, now known as the “First Lady of Negro Baseball,” the co-owner of the Newark Eagles and the only woman to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. She fought vigorously with Rickey and other white baseball executives who refused to compensate Negro league teams for drafting their players.

The integration of baseball led to the decline of the Negro leagues, which became defunct in the late 1940s. The League makes a valuable and fascinating case for their importance through its deftly composed use of vintage footage and interviews, oral histories (the recollections of Bob Motley, a former Negro league umpire, prove particularly valuable), and commentary by modern historians and scholars . Superbly put together and packed with information, the film is a must-see for baseball and history buffs alike.