Inspirational Negro Leagues documentary recalls greats who endured hardship but played with passion

Interviews, photos and newsreel clips inform ‘‘The League,’’ which stands with the best chronicles of baseball integration.

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Chicago American Giants founder Rube Foster (center, with the 1916 team) went on to organize the Negro National League.

© Hake’s Auction, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

As many a Chicago baseball fan knows, the first All-Star Game was played at glorious Comiskey Park (“The -Baseball Palace of the World”) on the South Side on July 6, 1933, with 47,595 looking on as an American League team with a roster that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx defeated the National League 4-2.

But this was not the only All-Star Game played at Comiskey during that era. As we’re reminded in the comprehensive, invaluable and inspirational documentary “The League,” in September 1933, only a couple of months after that first MLB All-Star Game, the inaugural East-West All-Star Game featuring the top Negro League players took place at Comiskey. (Voting was tabulated by the two most influential Black newspapers of the time: the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.)

Over the next three decades, the East-West All-Star Game was a nearly annual staple at Comiskey (a handful of the games were played at other venues, including Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds), with crowds sometimes swelling above 50,000 to marvel at the talents of such legends as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell — and, in 1945, a Kansas City Monarchs shortstop named Jackie Robinson. Only after Negro League stars such as Robinson, Paige, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella and Willie Mays were admitted into MLB did the East-West game fade into the sunset, with many of its stars having moved on.

‘The League’

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Magnolia Pictures presents a documentary directed by Sam Pollard. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic content involving racism, a racial slur, some violent images, and smoking). Screens Sunday, Monday and Wednesday at local theaters, then July 14 on digital platforms.

This is the type of amazing historical chapter featured throughout director Sam Pollard’s film, which was produced by Questlove and Black Thought and makes brilliant use of archival interviews with Paige, Mays, Rachel Robinson (widow of Jackie), Monte Irvin and former Negro Leagues umpire Bob Motley, among many others; gorgeous black-and-white photography; newsreel footage, and some simple but cool and effective animation to tell the story of Black integration into baseball, which often mirrored and even influenced integration in a myriad of other fields.

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Negro Leagues umpire Bob Motley, who shares memories in “The League,” makes a call in the air

© Byron Motley, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

It’s the poet Maya Angelou whose comments inspired the title, as she notes in an interview that back in the day, when anyone in the Black community made a reference to “the League,” everybody knew you were referencing the Negro Leagues, which were officially formed in 1920.

The story of the Negro Leagues has been told many times, through documentaries such as “There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace” (1981) and “Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues” (2014), the “Shadow Ball” chapter of Ken Burns’ “Baseball” series (1994) and oral histories such as “Only the Ball Was White,” and “The League” stands with the best of them.

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Jackie Robinson wears his Kansas City Monarchs uniform in 1945, a year before he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Library of Congress

We meet or are reintroduced to a number of pivotal, larger-than-life personalities who were instrumental in the development and promotion of the Negro Leagues, e.g., Rube Foster, founder and manager of the Chicago American Giants, who favored a fast and exciting style of play featuring drag bunts and an emphasis on stealing bases and taking the extra base at a time when the major leagues of the Ruth era were all about the home run and stodgy, station-to-station baseball. Foster wrote a series of op-eds for the Chicago Defender titled “The Pitfalls of Baseball,” in which he advocated for organizing Black baseball into a league with scheduled games in order to help build the fan base. In 1920, with Foster leading the way, the Negro National League was born.

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Larry Doby, formerly of the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles, wears his new uniform in the Cleveland Indians dugout in 1947.

AP

As the documentary reminds us, the ballplayers were often subjected to the harshest conditions: banned from staying at hotels or eating at restaurants in the South, sometimes having to sleep at the ballpark, routinely playing doubleheaders or even tripleheaders. Still, they played the game with great talent and passion.

With powerhouse teams such as the American Giants, Monarchs, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Birmingham Black Barons in various versions of the Negro Leagues, it was obvious to any knowledgeable baseball insider that dozens if not hundreds of players could play and in many cases excel at the major-league level. Negro League team owners hoped for a merger — something we saw in later decades with the NFL and AFL, and the NBA and ABA — but white owners and rigid (that’s putting it nicely) commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis were having none of that.

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Newark Eagles co-owner Effa Manley foresaw that integration would “break [the] business” of the Negro Leagues.

Baseball Hall of Fame

“The League” points out that while Branch Rickey always will have a place in baseball and cultural history by signing Robinson, he steadfastly refused to compensate team owners for taking Robinson and other Negro League stars. The Indians’ Bill Veeck is credited for breaking that precedent by paying Newark Eagles co-owner Effa Manley (talk about a legend of the game) $10,000 for the rights to Doby. It was far below market value, but it was something.

Integration was always the goal, but it also meant, in the words of Manley, that it would “break [the] business” of the Negro Leagues. It’s great that Robinson, Mays, Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron and many others played on the biggest baseball stage imaginable, but we’re reminded that it will always be our shame that Oscar Charleston, Pop Lloyd, Buck Leonard, Gibson and Bell never had that chance. At least, thank the baseball gods (but mostly the pioneers who set the path) they had the League.

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