The League (2023)

Enlighting ‘League’ hits it out of the park

Jackie Robinson’s demolition of baseball’s color barrier in 1947 was an enormous advancement for African Americans in obtaining social equality. But what about economically? It might surprise you that this momentous achievement induced many once-thriving Black neighborhoods to slip into abject poverty. How it happened is just one of the myriad tidbits gleaned from “The League,” director Sam Pollard’s love letter to the only positive segregation ever produced: the Negro baseball leagues.

Where would we be without them? Bored to tears, most likely. Unlike the all-white era, when station-to-station baseball was all the rage, the likes of Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil and Josh Gibson energized the professional game with speed, finesse and supersized personalities substantial enough to put the stodgy Major Leagues to shame. And Black fans ate it up, packing stadiums and expanding the coffers of surrounding Black-owned businesses.

Who needs MLB when you have splashy standouts such as pitcher Rube Foster, the owner-manager of the Chicago American Giants, a member of the National Negro League he co-founded in 1920? Or, how about bitter rivals, Cumberland Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays; and Gus Greenlee, owner of the crosstown Pittsburgh Crawfords, staging bidding wars over the likes of Paige and Gibson? These guys knew how to put on a show, a fact not lost on MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. But he steadfastly refused to lift the color barrier, which was good for Black-owned businesses, but yet another stain on a nation that believed African Americans were worthy of fighting in its wars, but not playing in the Majors.

Although far from thorough, the prolific Pollard, fresh off directing the fabulous documentary on Celtics’ great Bill Russell, adequately traces the history of Blacks in baseball from the arrival of Moses Fleetwood Walker in the once non-discriminatory Majors in 1884, to the rise of the Negro leagues, to their ultimate decline once the best Black players were siphoned off (without financial compensation) into the Majors in the late 1950s. Personally, I had no idea how popular the Negro leagues were in their heyday. It’s said churches held services an hour earlier on Sundays to accommodate home games.

Pollard verifies with dozens and dozens of rare archival photos of packed stadiums filled with Black patrons decked out in their Sunday best. That’s because these leagues, and their charismatic players, were not just fun and games. They were an event, as numerous scholars and fans corroborate. Even better are dozens of well-preserved, decade’s-old interviews with Paige and other former Negro league stars who’ve long since departed.

But their legends live on. And they will only grow thanks to “The League.” Sure, it brushes past a few facts, like how even dark-skinned Hispanic players were forced to play in the Negro leagues. But for much of the film’s compact 103 minutes, Pollard holds you in his grip, as he methodically shares dozens of interesting nuggets and anecdotes to fortify a tribute that touches all the bases.

Movie review

The League

Rated: PG for some violent images, a racial slur, smoking, racism, thematic content

Director: Sam Pollard

Runtime: 103 minutes

Grade: B+

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