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The League

Sam Pollard’s name should be included on any list of the best modern documentary filmmakers. Pollard started his impressive career as an editor, notably working with Spike Lee on a series of films, including “Mo’ Better Blues,” “4 Little Girls,” and “Bamboozled.” As a documentary director, he’s had a remarkable run lately that includes “Mr. Soul!” (co-directed with Melissa Haizlip), “MLK/FBI,” “Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power,” and this week’s “The League,” playing in a limited theatrical release before dropping digitally next week. This detailed telling of the story of the Negro League Baseball is both informative and entertaining, the kind of thing that will play well in equal measure to massive fans of the sport and those who know nothing about it. Growing up a huge MLB fan, I’ve read a lot of books on the history of the game and watched all 19 hours of Ken Burns’ “Baseball,” and I still found so much interesting material in “The League” that my main criticism is that I wanted it to be longer. There’s too much story to tell in a feature runtime, so parts of “The League” feel like they’re just skimming the surface. But what a fantastic surface it is.

Pollard relies heavily on archival footage and photos, smartly allowing a relatively small cadre of experts to tell the story of Negro League Baseball, which means it doesn't get too dry. From the film's beginning, Pollard employs a tone that could be called joyous. It’s a smart decision that frames “The League” as a story of triumph—neighborhoods getting together to watch the best athletes in their region in a way that felt almost like a party. Pollard and his experts portray the early days of Black baseball as a place of pride. People would often come to games in their Sunday best, and there was a sense that this came from the community and belonged to the community.

In the communities in which Negro League Baseball flourished—basically on an East-West line from New York to Chicago—the sport developed its own stars. There’s always been a sense that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a bit illegitimate, given how many of its legendary stars weren’t really playing against the best in the sport. As “The League” unpacks some of the game's legends, one gets the sense that most of them could support an entire documentary of their own. 

Take Rube Foster, the owner, manager, and star player for the Chicago American Giants. Over his career early in the century, he threw seven no-hitters and is credited with inventing the screwball—a manager snuck him into an MLB clubhouse to teach it to his star pitcher. Or Josh Gibson, who hit a home run almost every 14 ABs over his career—a number that would have made him a household name at the peak of baseball’s popularity. I would absolutely watch entire films about either of them. Or Effa Manley, the co-owner of the Newark Eagles, who fought against a white male baseball establishment and often won.

“The League” is at its best when it's focusing on lesser-known stories, even if it has to eventually get Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Jackie Robinson in the mix. Of course, I’m not begrudging legends getting more attention, but I found the film at its most interesting when it was unearthing stories instead of just repeating oft-told ones. To that end, Pollard gets to a fascinating place in the final chapter when he unpacks how integration essentially meant the demise of Negro League Baseball, not only because the league’s stars left for the major leagues but because the white owners didn’t pay their previous owners anything to steal them. So while there was an undeniable good in the integration of the sport, there was still greed under the surface dismantling something vital to the Black community. Again, this is less than 10 minutes of the film, and I wanted more of it.

It’s not that any of “The League” is shallow. Pollard doesn’t operate that way. And there’s something valuable about a feature documentary that makes you want to read more about its subject. I think Pollard would be fine with that criticism and agree that this is a starting point to learn about people who should have been household names when they were playing. It’s not too late.

In theaters for a week starting today and on VOD next week.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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The League (2023)

Rated PG for thematic content involving racism, a racial slur, some violent images, and smoking.

103 minutes

Cast

Lovell Gates as Satchell Paige

Jakkar Thompson as Ruben Foster

Clayton B. Stevens as C.I. Taylor

Director

Editor

Composer

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