Sam Pollard’s The League, a documentary about Black baseball and the leagues that sustained it during segregation, is manna for both baseball freaks and lovers of context. Getting your head around Satchel Paige’s strikeout rate matching Nolan Ryan’s is one thing; understanding that post-game Paige was forced to sleep on top of his suitcase in the ballpark because no hotel would accommodate him because of his skin color is another entirely.
THE LEAGUE ★★ (2/4 stars)
By jumping back and forth between achievement and injustice, The League, like a centerfielder tracking a high fly ball, slams into the same fence that impedes so many stories about African-American achievement in racist, 20th Century America. Do you focus on the joy of attainment and occasional transcendence of figures like Rube Foster, a dominant pitcher gifted with a mind for business who organized the first Negro National League? Or do you focus on the impossible odds he faced as he did so, getting knocked down and out, just as he and the league were gaining momentum?
Relying on scholars as talking heads and the disembodied narrative of recently departed League participants like Hank Aaron and umpire Bob Motley, Pollard’s film splits the difference evenly. In doing so, The League blunts the impact of both. We are told that the celebration and camaraderie of Black baseball rivaled that of the Black church (leading some Kansas City churches to change the time of Sunday service to accommodate that day’s double header). But the revelry never pours off the screen; instead, it remains trapped under museum glass.
“The real impact of the East-West game is that the white sports writers started to cover it,” intones an expert about the League’s inaugural All-Star game in 1933 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Really? Just moments before, the film had made a convincing argument that the “real impact” had been the game itself: what it meant to play in and witness such exuberant and aggressive baseball, surrounded by such pomp.
The film displays a keen understanding of the way events like World War I and II, the Great Depression, and the Great Migration shaped the Negro League and its player. (It was odd, after what we all have been through in the last three years, to not mention the upheaval of the 1918 flu pandemic—one of the greatest pandemics in history—when referencing the “Red Summer” race riots of 1919.)
Alongside Chicago and Kansas City, the film rightfully centers Pittsburgh—home of the Homestead Grays, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier—as both the beating heart of the Negro League and a crucial inflection point of the eventual integration of Major League Baseball.
The League effectively connects the baseball acumen of Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley and her early Civil Rights activism organizing boycotts of department stores that wouldn’t hire Black sales people. By the time former Kansas City Monarch Jackie Robinson became “the ink blot on the white canvas of injustice” by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, you have a profound sense of what has been overcome. But the breakthrough feels intellectual rather than emotional, befitting a film that takes on the glumly studious sheen of a graduate school seminar.
There is little room for the silliness and eccentricity that has always been a part of both baseball and the endeavor of old guys speaking far too seriously about men playing a child’s game. Even Ken Burns’ Baseball, a series whose style perhaps over influenced The League, found moments of comic levity. (While the film finds space for new voices like author Andrea Williams, it also relies on familiar figures like essayist and scholar Gerald Early, a mainstay from Burn’s many series, including Baseball.)
It is a fascinating moment to consider a history in which exuberant achievement is shaped within a cauldron of systemic injustice. Negro League hats are sold for top dollar, and you can play Negro League players in “story mode” in the video game MLB The Show 23. Yet the game itself has perhaps never felt more distanced from Black culture: last year’s Astros-Phillies match-up was the first World Series played without a U.S.-born Black player since 1950.
By presenting this crucial cultural phenomenon in a staid documentary form and in the reverent tone of a hushed docent, The League has the unintentional impact of making Black baseball seem like ancient rather than living history.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.