The League

The League is one of the most impressive sports documentaries I’ve ever seen. The film, directed by Sam Pollard, takes an in-depth look at the Negro Baseball League. An impressive amount of information is presented here, but what really makes it stand out is how Pollard builds context. Most of us have at least a general knowledge of what the NBL was. After seeing this movie, you’ll understand it on a far deeper level.

The history of the Negro Baseball League is told by introducing us to the most significant players on the field and behind the scenes. There’s Andrew “Rube” Foster, a visionary manager who saw the potential of an all-Black league and took steps to make it happen. There’s Josh Gibson, the league’s most extraordinary player, who helped put it on the map. There’s Effa Marley, a team owner known as “the First Lady of Black Baseball.” She was pivotal in convincing major league owners to buy out the contracts of Negro League players once integration barriers began to crumble. And, of course, you couldn’t tell this story without Jackie Robinson, who broke into the majors and became a pioneer.

Those aspects give the relevant history. The League additionally includes multiple on-camera interview subjects who explain the social forces that shaped the NBL. Economic disparity, segregation, war, and politics all had a hand in its formation and evolution. We learn what an immense source of pride it was for Black communities to support a Black-run sports organization. The interviewees also provide insight into how aspects from the NBL – stealing bases, the corkscrew pitch, etc. – found their way into the major leagues. Perhaps most enlightening is one historian’s assertation that Jackie Robinson’s success didn’t actually benefit Negro League players overall, as few of them had his uncommon level of skill and therefore weren’t recruited to join the predominantly white teams. Exceptions were made solely for the extraordinary.

This accounting is fascinating, even if baseball isn’t really your thing. The League is as much about race in America as it is about the sport. Extensive use of archival photos and footage helps to convey the bigger picture. The Negro Baseball League was born because people of color did not have access to the same opportunities as whites. Consequently, they did the only thing they could – made their own opportunities and then excelled to the point where whites had to take notice. As in music, performance, art, and other areas, they were groundbreakers who changed everything for the better.

The League is a first-rate exploration of an important historical movement – not just Black history, but American history. The documentary is entertaining and educational.

out of four

The League is rated PG for thematic material involving racism, a racial slur, some violent images, and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.