Perseverance – it’s the one word I felt upon viewing director Sam Pollard's documentary, The League. No matter how many obstacles were in the way – whether it be the racism of the Jim Crow laws of the South, economic factors due to the Great Depression of the 1920s, or Major League Baseball’s long reluctance to reintroduce Black athletes into its ecosystem. The Negro Leagues shaped the way baseball was played back then and today. From the uptempo style of bunt-and-runs, double steals, and flashy routine plays from shortstops to the many modern legends the league itself has given us – from Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Satchel Paige, to name a few.
Pollard’s informative story switches viewpoints from scholars and journalists such as Andrea Williams, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick, first-hand accounts from former legends, and a retelling of Negro League umpire Bob Motley on his experiences – both from working during the games and being an observer of the culture born from the games themselves. Church services were moved up an hour so Black townspeople could cheer on their favorite teams. Black-owned newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, got the word out. The League thankfully and graciously gives players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige their flowers, but it also chronicles the difficulties Black America faced.
Many people may think Jackie Robinson was the first Black baseball player to integrate into the Major Leagues. However, Black players like Moses Fleetwood Walker played alongside white players as early as the 1870s. Figures like Cap Anson and later Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis opposed any integration measure to play alongside Black players. That’s where people such as the late great Rube Foster and, later on, Ed Bolden, Abe, and Effa Manley came into the fold to ensure the infrastructure was in place for the league to thrive. When the Negro National League and Eastern Colored League were in full swing, the towns and businesses surrounding where the teams played lifted with them.
Despite existing in a world that would often turn Black players away from room and board during their travels, where they would sometimes play three games a day. Players often had to eat bread and peanut butter only and sleep on buses or on the field. Still, they pressed on and had celebrations like East/West All-Star games or the Negro League World Series. While players showed their skills on the field, Pollard displays the difficulties Black people faced during World War I and II – where Black soldiers went to fight in hopes of finding some equal footing when they came back home, but to no avail.
While The League highlights that an overall goal was for integration into one game, the success of the Negro Leagues was entirely on its merit. It would only be until the mid-1940s that the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Ricky, would sign Jackie Robinson to the team. The documentary goes on to tell the other stories involving integration – owners like Rickey raided talent from Negro League teams and didn’t feel the need to compensate them. As the Black players migrated to the MLB, so did the fans – so by osmosis, this was a slow death for the Negro Leagues in totality. Bravely, Pollard highlights all sides and even the price it costs to want to be on equal footing with those who inflict hatred upon you. Through the many recorded interviews and stories to boast, there’s a pride there that still carries to players who take their rightful spots in the dugout today.
You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been – given that people actively went out of their way to make your travels to the promised land murky. Even so, there is no denying the history of teams such as Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, and the Chicago American Giants has created within the DNA of America’s pastime.