The League Documents a Well-Rounded Chapter in Baseball History

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The League Documents a Well-Rounded Chapter in Baseball History

You don’t need encyclopedic baseball knowledge to appreciate Sam Pollard’s new film The League, but it probably helps. But despite Pollard’s rigorous scholarship in his subject area, The League isn’t a dense movie. It’s just painstakingly researched and judiciously constructed. What Pollard pulls from his subjects is ease of storytelling; even at an hour and forty minutes, the film keeps a lively pace, and for all of the work’s academic value, it’s endlessly, almost effortlessly engaging. Pollard didn’t make this movie just for folks with heads for sports stats. He made it for everybody.

This nicely contrasts with the unflattering history The League confronts in chronicling the Negro Baseball League, namely that baseball wasn’t made for everybody, not to start with; it was made for the ruling body, white people, with Black people ad-libbing and making do with the resources they had available to them, and, miraculously, thriving beyond even their own expectation in the doing. Pollard understands that his audience must be broad, and accepts that his material will consequently brim over with important details: The names, places, dates, and contexts not only that drove Black Americans to form their own baseball teams, but made those teams successful. Any number of canonized aphorisms can explain how, and why: Scarcity drives demand; necessity is the mother of invention; life, lemons, lemonade. Pollard chooses to go deeper than that.

He also chooses to frame “success” as multi-dimensional when another filmmaker might have made other facets secondary to profit – which was, after all, part of the Negro leagues’ accomplishments. (This is America, and in America, we measure worth through pocketbooks and bank accounts.) For Pollard’s film, the leagues’ profitability is remarkable because that profit is so entwined with other markers of success and achievement and cultural vibrancy. So The League dutifully minds profit while paying greater attention and homage to people. Again and again, Pollard brings the film back around to strokes of either entrepreneurial brilliance, embodied in the actions of such figures as Rube Foster and Effa Manley, or circumstances like America’s entry into World War II, which, while not explicitly good fortune, benefited the leagues in some way. Almost every time he does, The League reflexively punctuates the relationship between baseball and money by establishing both as signifiers of healthy Black communities in the cities where the game was played.

Pollard further keenly demonstrates just how much impact baseball had on Black American life from the late 1800s to the 1950s, inviting viewers to wonder what that life might look like in 2023 without the Negro leagues’ advent. The film’s thesis is that Black people, denied the same opportunities and tools as their white countrymen, often find ways to rise above systemic oppression, using the least to do the most; the saga of the Negro leagues proves that thesis while offering ingenuity and grit as Black American birthrights. Whatever forces hold Black people down, whether economic, social, or political, they’ll carve out a path to overcome them. 

Pollard makes his documentarian articulations through archival footage, animated interstitial segments, and talking head interviews with authorities ranging from Andrea Williams to Bob Kendrick, as well as apparently freshly discovered interviews with the likes of Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil, icons of Black American baseball glory; he uses The Negro Baseball Leagues, the late Bob Motley’s memoir of his days umpiring in the Negro leagues, as the basis for the film’s structure, narrating Motley’s words himself throughout. The sheer volume of sources Pollard turns to, and voices he includes, in the orchestration of his movie is impressive, and also appropriately mirrors the material. It took an alliance of athletes, community leaders, and businessmen to make Negro league baseball into such a cultural and financial force that white Americans had no choice but to respect it; likewise, it takes an assembly of experts and scholars to tell the whole story before Pollard’s camera.

Director: Sam Pollard
Writer: Based on The Negro Baseball Leagues, by Bob Motley
Starring: Maya Angelou, Myra Taylor, James Brunson III, Amiri Baraka, Andrea Williams, Shakeia Tayalor, Rob Ruck, Leslie Heaphy, Richard Wilkinson, Bob Kendrick, Sam Pollard, Dhane Ross, Donovan Price
Release Date: July 7, 2023

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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