The League movie review & film summary (2023)

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.