If you didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh (which boasted baseball’s great rivals the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords) or watched Episode 5 of Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary series “Baseball,” you might not know much about the Negro Leagues. This is about to change.
Sam Pollard’s “The League” is an illuminating insight into the 154-year history of American baseball. Indeed, the recent rule changes imposed on the Majors by Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred were inspired in part by the practices of the Negro Leagues: while Babe Ruth focused on home runs (like many players today), these extraordinary black athletes favored a fast, hit and run game, steal bases.
“If you look at footage of Jackie Robinson from the 1940s and 1950s, his style of play, his aggression, it’s all from the Negro leagues,” Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Pollard told IndieWire during a recent interview. . “If you look at the players who integrated Major League Baseball, like Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Rickey Henderson or Lou Brock, all those guys played a game that basically came out of the Negro Leagues approach. Now the game has become slower. So now Major League Baseball has reinterpreted and reinstated those rules to make the game as exciting as it once was. Because Major League Baseball was an exciting game in the 60s, 70s and 80s.”
In the doc, Pollard dives into what video archives he could find to show us the legendary stars of the Negro League era, which officially lasted from 1920 to 1948. After Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in 1945 (without compensate for his team), opened the door for the Majors to poach the best players in the Negro League, from Satchel Paige to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, putting the Leagues out of business.
Pollard said no one knew that Branch Rickey “didn’t want to compensate Negro league owners for signing Jackie Robinson or Roy Campanella,” he said. “We’ve always seen the story of the movie ’42’ where Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey is a wonderful curmudgeon who loves Jackie and says, ‘You can’t show you have a temper, you have to keep it all inside, and it’s going to be good for the game.’ Now we see that Branch Rickey has another side.”
Robinson’s true story also shocked Academy Award winner Amir “Questlove” Thompson (“Summer of Soul”), who joined “The League” as an executive producer. “I grew up thinking Robinson was this undeniable force in baseball’s athleticism, only to find out later that he was singled out for his patience and his ability to take what was offered to him, which wasn’t something easily digested: I hate , being laughed at, being ridiculed, having his life threatened, like you’re making history while your life is threatened,” Thompson told IndieWire. “He was specifically cast because he can handle it, which is an unfortunate burden to bear “.
On the other hand, Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley managed to wring some money out of the Chicago White Sox, Pollard said, “When Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby, he was able to get $10,000, which for that time is a huge amount of money.”
The film shows that as long as the Negro leagues lasted, they often outperformed the white teams by drawing enthusiastic fans to overflowing ballparks. They were among the most prosperous black-owned business ventures in American history.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, where he heard tales of legendary baseball teams from his family, Thompson likes to shed light on hidden history. “The lane I’m in is unearthing parts of history that have been forgotten or sadly buried, neglected,” Thompson said. “We are living in a time period where people in some parts of the country are literally trying to rewrite history. And often, looking in the rearview mirror isn’t a pastime for black historians. I’m all about restoring history and giving people an idea of where they’re from.”
For Thompson, “Black history is American history. In the 1970s, Motown made the Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor film, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” a movie about a Negro league team. We were basically just fed the narrative that Jackie Robinson came along one day, and then it was Kumbaya. And so it was, as if everything were equal and right. It wasn’t until this project that I made a common thread of about five or six examples of African American communities using their own resources to build successful businesses. And quite literally, in the case of Tulsa, their lives are threatened in order to thrive and be successful. And in this case, now I’m finding out that the Negro League was making a lot more money than domestic Major League Baseball.”
One of the pivotal moments in touring white baseball owners was a meeting with Broadway star Paul Robeson, who said the major leagues should be integrated with players who risked their lives fighting in World War II. “This integration story is always complicated,” Pollard said. “There has been a level of integration, but there is still segregation in much of America. It’s a double-edged sword that we live with in this country. It’s never been an easy fix in terms of racial attitudes in America.”
Ten years ago, Pollard began making a documentary based on a book by Byron Motley about his father, Bob Motley, who had been a Negro League umpire in the 1940s and 1950s. It took a while to raise funds. Two and a half years ago Radical Media arrived, followed by Magnolia and Thompson, and the film’s reach became much broader.
While Thompson was working with 40 hours of footage, an embarrassment for “Summer of Soul,” Pollard had to settle for much less. “Finding substantive information is almost like a needle in a haystack,” Thompson said. “So I respect all the creative choices Sam made to tell the story, when he really didn’t get the lion’s share of the story. It wasn’t like these games were televised or that they were properly documented. These people could barely find shelter and food, let alone someone to document them.”
Some of the rare treasures unearthed by Pollard archivists include footage of African-American players playing in the Caribbean and Mexico, who had been saved by Quincy Troupe, the son of a Negro league catcher. Producer Helen Russell found rare footage of perhaps the most famous players in the Negro League: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.
“It was just wonderful to see some of the things we’ve never seen before,” said Pollard. “And some of these Negro league lovers, they had signs, old tickets, baseball memorabilia cards.”
Next: On October 6, PBS American Masters will show Pollard’s documentary about legendary drummer Max Roach, including performances by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Abbey Lincoln.
And Thompson is working on his documentary Sly and the Family Stone (Disney/Onyx), inspired by the rediscovery of Stone’s music during the making of “Summer of Soul”. Thompson didn’t miss out, he said, that “in the 10 days following the Harlem Cultural Festival, the only paradigm shifting event in Sly’s life will occur, which is his performance at Woodstock. And Sly ends up doing a very, very slow self-sabotage to his career. This movie is going to be about Sly Stone, but I’m going to deal with what we call ‘the burden of genius.’”
A Magnolia Pictures release, ‘The League’ is in theaters with a VOD release to follow on Friday, July 14th.