July 14th, 2023
MOVIE: THE LEAGUE
STARRING: SATCHEL PAIGE, JACKIE ROBINSON, JOSH GIBSON
DIRECTED BY: SAM POLLARD
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
The line from James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams often echoes in my head, “The one constant through all the years, has been baseball.” It’s a phrase that remains true today, but at one point in the game’s storied past, the reality is that not everyone was allowed to play on the same field. In Sam Pollard’s excellent new documentary, The League, he captures the creation, rise, and eventual fall of the baseball Negro League. In that process of telling the league’s story, he gives a thorough examination of how it was more than just an opportunity that gave Black men their right to thrive in baseball but shows that the Negro League helped the sport remain constant through all these years.
Watching The League means that the viewer would need to courageously subject themselves to the ugly truths of segregation. They both go together in this subject, where Black men were not allowed to play baseball in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson historically became the first Black man to play in 1947. What Pollard does so eloquently is not just reveal the harsh realities of the time but also pay homage to the many men and women that made the Negro Leagues possible. Without it, there is no Satchell Paige or Jackie Robinson, and without them, there is no baseball today. The pressure and passion only grew stronger the more they were not allowed to participate.
What The League also captures perfectly in every stage of the Negro Leagues’ existence. From the beginning it was teams gathered together in small towns of the U.S., getting to places by bus, and playing strictly for the love of it. By 1920, the Negro National League had been created, but the number of teams was small, and expansion was inevitable in more cities. By 1932, Cumberland Posey would create the East-West League, which would include more of the established teams such as the Homestead Grays, the Chicago American Giants, and the St. Louis Stars. And once the war hit, an instant pause hit home, as men who were not accepted in their own country were asked to fight for it, an ugly reality that would rightfully put pressure on the world to integrate. We asked men to die for our country but wouldn’t let them play baseball?
Any major quibble I have with The League is that it is missing a spark that could help the common viewer from feeling like they have homework. Pollard puts on display many major details, such as images, videos, and talking heads to inform the audience, but that makes the documentary more fit for PBS than a documentary that is revolutionizing the way a story is told. It is a more standard approach, following what Pollard did in MLK/FBI, which was an all-audio-style documentary, of various important people explaining how Martin Luther King was a target of the FBI and it’s riveting from front to back.
It’s the third and final act of The League, however, that truly won me over, delivering information I had never known before. Pollard rightfully explains the double-edged sword that was the eventual signing of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although it was a watershed moment for Major League Baseball, what needs to be understood is that Robinson’s departure would mean the beginning of the end for the Negro League. Even though Robinson’s accomplishment was great, there were still a number of Black athletes that would not get their chance till later, and a league that could not draw with all of its big stars playing elsewhere. It’s that sad end that makes The League an even more important piece of cinema. A documentary that gives men and women vital to the sport of baseball their moment of praise and acknowledgment. I think The League is a genuine and powerful documentary and something that I would call essential viewing. Not just for fans of baseball but for all of us.
THE LEAGUE IS NOW PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS AND WILL BE AVAILABLE ON DEMAND ON JULY 14TH, 2023.
Written by: Leo Brady