Connect with us


‘The League’ Review: Sam Pollard’s Negro League Baseball Doc Is Fascinating and Essential



To say that Sam Pollard’s documentary about the history of baseball’s Negro League is full of possibilities for Hollywood treatment is an understatement. The whole time I was watching The League, I kept thinking what a great narrative movie 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 itself but makes one want to see nearly every one of its episodes dramatized — after all, it’s been a long time since 1976’s The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.

Receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival before being released theatrically next month, the film — based on the book The Negro Baseball Leagues by Bob Motley and Byron Motley — proves another feather in the cap of the documentarian who directed such outstanding previous efforts as Mr. Soul!, Sammy Davis, Jr: I’ve Got to Be Meand MLK/FBI, as well as executive producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, responsible for the Oscar winning Summer of Soul.

The League

The Bottom Line

Long overdue.

Casual baseball fans may be surprised to learn that the sport was actually integrated in its earliest days, although Black players made up only a minority of team members. That started to change in the late 1800s, due to such racist white players as Pop Anson of the aptly named Chicago White Stockings, who refused to take the field with Black athletes.

Black players were subsequently banned from the game as Jim Crow laws took over 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 its 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,” proves one of the film’s most interesting subjects. He pitched seven no-hitters and is credited with inventing the screwball and teaching it to white player Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, who made it famous. Foster met a tragic end after suffering the ill effects of a gas leak in a hotel room. He became delusional and was institutionalized for several years in an asylum, 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 become legendary and, in some cases, eventually joined the MLB, including Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Satchel Paige, among many others. We hear from these players and more in archival interview footage.

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

After many Black servicemen fought for the country in World War II, pressure began forming for the integration of Major League Baseball, with Paul Robeson enlisted as the campaign’s spokesperson. The move had been opposed for years by MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, whose name and visage recalls a character from Birth of a Nation. Landis died in 1944, and three years later Branch Rickey recruited 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 the Negro leagues teams for recruiting their players.

Baseball’s integration led to the decline of the Negro leagues, which became defunct by the end of the 1940s. The League makes a valuable and fascinating case for their importance via its skillfully composed use of vintage footage and interviews, oral histories (the recollections of Bob Motley, a former Negro leagues umpire, prove especially invaluable), and commentary from modern-day historians and scholars. Superbly assembled and comprehensively informative, the film is must viewing for baseball and history buffs alike.

Check the latest Hollywood news here.