During the opening frames of Sam Pollard’s “The League,” a profound and wistful documentary about the rise and fall of the Negro Leagues, baseball champions Hank Aaron and Monte Irvin share how they played the game as children, even when they weren’t it had nothing but broomsticks.
As footage of Black children playing on a sandlot rushes by, what’s being discussed isn’t just successful men reminiscing about their past hardships, they’re talking about how they overcame those obstacles through resourcefulness and cunning. Pollard’s latest hard-hitting documentary about one of the largest black-owned companies in America, the Negro Leagues, is filled with those gems of persistence and adaptation.
Still, Pollard doesn’t shy away from the deeply felt dangers that plagued these athletes who lived under the cloud of systemic racism. He tells this story through his narration and chronologically. He begins by righting a misconception: Although Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, he wasn’t the first black man to play in the major leagues.
In 1884, for example, Moses “Fleetwood” Walker became the first black man to play for a professional team when he dressed for the Toledo Blue Stockings. Blacks routinely played with and against whites until 1883, when Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings (now referred to as the Chicago Cubs) threatened never to take the field if an African American was there. So, starting the color barrier.
Pollard cleverly links the color barrier with the subsequent 1886 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson, who instituted the separate but equal doctrine. He also describes how a broader need to improvise felt by the entire black community took hold in the rise of black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, and in the legendary pitcher’s formation of the Negro Leagues and its World Series. black. /manager/owner Rube Foster in Chicago.
The introduction of names like Moses “Fleetwood” Walker and Robe Foster demonstrates the thoroughness Pollard aims for: he wants to show the entire history of black American baseball. He does this by plotting the layers of the early Negro leagues and its abrupt fall after Foster’s untimely death. So he dives into the second lineup in the league, making teams like the Birmingham Black Barons, Kansas City Crawfords and Homestead Grays household names for Black America.
The documentary also covers Effa Manley – the co-owner of the Newark Eagles – and through the trading of black and Latino players between North and Central America and the Caribbean. Through these stories, Pollard offers a seldom discussed three-dimensional conception of black baseball.
Care in telling what was an erased story — though, truth be told, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has done much to cradle what remains — is evident in Pollard’s many wise choices. He uses statistics to offer viewers contemporary comparisons with legends like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. He uses the words of Bob Motley, a former Negro League catcher and umpire, to offer a vivid and colorful first-hand account of the hard life faced on a segregated street by these athletes. He is made even more intimate by Pollard’s decision to personally narrate Motley’s writing; his voice gives the film a fresh and breezy sense of memory.
Pollard takes such care, not just because it’s simply his job as a documentary filmmaker, but because so few films exist about the Negro Leagues. “Soul of the Game” and “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” are exceptions. The mere presence of this film is a continuation of Pollard’s ability to fill the unrecorded void.
The civil rights story of America, especially the figures great and small who influenced it, has long interested Pollard. While “The League” isn’t composed in the same framework as “Mr. Soul!” or “MLK/FBI,” follows in the thematic footsteps of “Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power,” a documentary he co-directed with Geeta Gandbhir. “Lowndes County” covers a Georgia county’s struggle to fight Jim Crow by integrating into local political offices, under the auspices that having people of color in positions of power — sheriffs, mayors, congressmen — would eliminate systemic racism.Although the film is a powerful testament to their work, it boldly concludes with one of the attendees who questions the wisdom of integrating into a burning building.
“The League” attempts to make a similar film. Gorgeous photos of Black people in their Sunday bests heading to the ballpark, and Black players visiting Black-owned restaurants, and interviews with the likes of Maya Angelou, inform us of the community support these teams receive . Footage of packed ballparks, fans enraptured by the skills and accuracy of these players, punctuated by Dave Marcus’ distinguished editing and jaunty soundtrack, brings the scenes of revelry and superhuman feats to life. When we come to Robinson’s integration of baseball, we come to appreciate what has been gained, but we are also privy to what has been lost.
Now, the Nergro Leagues don’t exist. Black ownership, whether it be real estate or businesses, remains a persistent battle. While MLB celebrates the greats of Negro League Baseball, both through induction into the Hall of Fame and by virtue of Jackie Robinson Day – when every player wears Robinson’s 42 – for United States today, the percentage of African Americans in the majors is at its lowest since 1955. The aftermath of integration into the modern baseball landscape is the only missing component in the film. Then again, a full review should probably be saved for another documentary.
Yet as a living testament to the history of Negro leagues – its role in shaping America, in the prospects for upward mobility, in providing a playing field for blacks to express themselves – Pollard’s “The League” is a rich, gripping, and necessary tribute to a critical first wave in the civil rights movement.
Magnolia Pictures releases “The League” in theaters today with a VOD release following on Friday, July 14th.