In his career as a documentarian, Sam Pollard has made consistently good films that take an often uncomfortable but necessary look at their subjects. His documentaries are warts-and-all examinations, usually of some aspect of Black life. A former film editor, Pollard’s work is always meticulously crafted, and “The League” is no exception.
Along with “Citizen Ashe,” about legendary tennis player Arthur Ashe, and “Bill Russell: Legend,” about the star Celtic player, “The League” forms a sports-based trilogy in which Pollard teaches a history lesson on the achievements of Black athletes. This time, the subject is baseball, specifically the Negro Leagues that sprouted up before baseball was re-integrated by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
I was amazed by how much information was crammed into this film’s 105 minute runtime, and by how clearly it was presented. There are first-person accounts from players and owners of the teams, plus commentary from historians and sportswriters. Familiar names like Satchel Paige, James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, and Josh Gibson are mentioned and their stories told, but “The League” stretches back to the origins of the first Negro League that preceded the more well-known entity of the 1940s.
The recollections of Negro League umpire Bob Motley serve as an informal narration/running commentary. Motley’s son Byron provides audio of several players recounting their own tales based on interviews he conducted and recorded. There’s also video footage of several Negro League players including Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both of whom went on to greatness in Major League Baseball.
“The League” begins with the story of the first Negro League, founded by Andrew “Rube” Foster in 1920. Black people had been playing baseball since the Civil War-era, but by the beginning of the 1900s, segregation became the norm. Foster suggested a league where Black athletes could play on their own. He used a Frederick Douglass quote as the league’s motto: “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea.”
Foster’s venture was a success and included the first Colored World Series in 1924, a best-of-nine series between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Hilldale Giants. (Kansas City won.) Players took a more active and faster approach than white baseball games allowed; bases were stolen and bunts were allowed in Foster’s league.
Tragedy struck when Foster was poisoned by gas fumes from a leaky heater, leading to several years of care in a sanitarium before his death in 1930. By then, he was so popular that fans of his native Chicago lined the streets for three days to pay tribute. Unfortunately, Foster’s absence and the Great Depression caused the demise of the first Negro League.
From here, Pollard shifts to the story of Cumberland Posey and Gus Greenlee. Posey was the son of the wealthiest Black man in Pittsburgh; Greenlee was a number-runner and entrepreneur. Both men poured their resources into Black baseball. Posey built the Homestead Grays during Foster’s era, while Greenlee funneled his funding into the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
We meet players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, the latter of whom appears onscreen in interviews conducted late in his life. We discover that Greenlee formed the second Negro National League and created a Black All-Star game in 1933. And talking heads including Negro League scholar Larry Lester tell the juicy tale of a sports rivalry between Greenlee and Posey, one that sounds as brutal and deep-rooted as the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox.
To remind us that the Negro Leagues included Latino as well as Black players, Lester provides a quote that stuck with me simply because he used a descriptive, colorful phrase I’ve heard from my old Southern relatives. “Negro Leagues was a rainbow coalition of players of color,” he said. “Everything from chalk to charcoal. That was the pigmentation that played.”
“The League” never loses focus on who played and why. Peppered throughout the film are important details about Black life in the era: Pollard cites The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier, two of the most powerful Black newspapers. Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, notes that in its heyday, Black baseball was so popular that churches would move their service times up to accommodate the games.
There’s also a first-person account by Kansas City Monarch Buck O’Neil, describing how he felt the day his fellow Monarch Jackie Robinson was called up to the show. He was in the Navy at the time. Grabbing the P.A. mic, he woke up his entire boat when he heard the news. “They whooped, they hollered, they shot their guns!” he recalled. “We didn’t sleep much that night.” The reaction of his crew mates echoed Black sentiment at the time. (O’Neil would later become the first Black coach in Major League Baseball.)
Pollard spends some time on the integration of baseball, bringing in journalists to discuss the repercussions of an event that was great for the major leagues but sounded the death knell for the Negro Leagues. The fascinating businesswoman Effa Manley takes center stage in this section.
Called the “first lady of Black baseball,” Manley was the co-owner of the Newark Eagles, and she was shrewd. In her own words, we hear her puncture the bowdlerized legend of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. Sure, he brought Robinson to the big leagues, but he didn’t compensate the Monarchs for taking him — a white team would have been entitled to payment in the trade. The raiding of players without compensation decimated numerous Black teams.
True to form, Pollard never sugarcoats the story, but there is some delectable joy in hearing how Manley dealt with losing her star player, Larry Doby, who integrated the American League.
This sounds like a lot of information, but I haven’t even scratched the surface of how much you’ll learn from “The League.” It’s a must-see for baseball fans and for anyone who loves a great American story.
Directed by Sam Pollard. With Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Effa Manley, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Larry Lester, Bob Kendrick. 105 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, suburbs July 9, 10, and 12. PG (language, slurs)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.