The League is a worthy addition to the canon of baseball documentaries with its focus on the history of the Negro Leagues.
Tribeca had a trio of baseball movies this year. Two of them were documentaries–both touch on Bill Veeck signing Larry Doby in Cleveland and breaking the AL color barrier. While I easily recommend both documentaries, The League is probably the more important of the two just because of what it brings to the table. I’m a baseball fan and while I know a lot of the names mentioned in the film, there are others that I didn’t even know. It’s a very insightful and educational film.
One of the reasons why this film even exists is because of Byron Motley. A producer on The League, he had previously interviewed over 100 people, whether they were former players, family members, or even Hall of Famers. The extensive interviews in his archive would pave the way for the bulk of archival content that drive the film. Without them, The League would not be the same. His father, Bob Motley had been an umpire for the Negro League and went onto be among the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City in 1990. It’s been over two decades since my last visit to the museum but it’s worth a visit. Anyway, Motley co-authored his father’s memoir, The Negro Leagues.
The Negro Leagues would start their downfall in the second half of the 20th century as Major League Baseball began to integrate. What you might not know is that there were Black players playing in the MLB years before Jackie Robinson broke the modern color barrier. Their stories are not as well-known but you can find them if you know where to look. In any event, the racism is what would drive Black players to form the Negro Leagues. Then-baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis has plays a large role. It was not until after his 1944 death in which MLB would begin to integrate. As shown in The Saint of Second Chances, Bill Veeck wanted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and integrate the team. Landis and the other racists of the era would not allow it.
While this is a talking head documentary with present-day interviews (it feels weird watching baseball history docs that do not feature historian John Thorn), what really drives it is the archival footage and interviews that the public is seeing for the first time. I’m talking about the likes of Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Monte Irvin, to name a few. If not for Josh Gibson’s early death, one wonders what his MLB numbers could have looked like. It’s one of the what-if’s of our time. While Cooperstown would honor the late O’Neil with the inaugural Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, the Early Baseball Era Committee would not vote for his induction until 2022. Too little, too late. He should have been inducted while he was alive!
There are some rather fascinating stories told throughout the film’s run time. For instance, Cumberland Posey and Gus Greenlee owned the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, respectively. The Grays would clinch 9 Negro National League pennants and win three world championships. Anyway, the fact that the two teams played in Pittsburgh is what would drive an intense rivalry in the years before the league folded. Beyond Posey and Greenlee, we learn about the only woman to be inducted in Cooperstown, Effa Manley. An activist owner of the Newark Eagles, she preferred Veeck’s approach over that of Branch Rickey. When Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby, he actually called up the club to let them know he wanted to buy the contract. Rickey didn’t do any of this when signing Jackie Robinson or anyone else.
A lot of credit must be given to Rube Foster. If not for him, the Negro Leagues would not have become an important part of baseball history. Not just this but they were important for Black communities during the pre-integration era. Many of the greatest players ever stepped foot on the diamond before getting a chance in the MLB. And yet, the integration of MLB is what would lead to the crushing of the Negro Leagues. Because of the Negro Leagues Museum, the League’s legacy endures to this day. All those amazing web gems? You can thank the defensive skills of the Negro Leagues making their way into the MLB.
Only 37 Hall of Fame players, managers, and executives in Cooperstown would earn their Hall of Fame inductions because of their ties to the Negro Leagues. The likes of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays would earn their induction because of their MLB career. That it took until 1971 to induct Satchel Paige is a shanda. He should have been inducted much earlier! Without Ted Williams banging the drum, who knows if any Negro Leaguers would have been inducted.
It is not often that a filmmaker will deliver a few films in a year, let alone a few great films. Sam Pollard does exactly this with Bill Russell: Legend and The League . I didn’t attend SXSW so I have not watched Max Roach yet. As I told a publicist after the screening, it’s going to be tough to choose the best baseball documentary. This is a home run documentary if I ever saw one. If I’m being honest, there’s probably enough here to make a longer documentary series. I cannot stress enough just how important this documentary is especially for keeping a legacy alive. And to think, it might not even exist without Byron Motley’s foresight to interview former Negro Leaguers. I’m curious as to how much footage did not make it into the final cut.
The League will is a stupendous documentary that will introduce the Negro Leagues to a new generation of baseball fans and keep their legacy alive. We’re all the better because of this richly told documentary.
DIRECTOR: Sam Pollard
FEATURING: Larry Lester, Larry Hogan, Mark Whitaker, Bob Kendrick, Phil Dixon, Shakeia Taylor, Gerald Early, Jim Overmyer, Donald Spivey, Leslie Heaphy, Andrea Williams, Layton Revel, James Brunson, Rob Ruck
The League held its world premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival in the Spotlight Documentary section. Magnolia Pictures will release The League in AMC theaters on July 7, 2023 and VOD on July 14. Grade: 5/5
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