Oscar Winner Questlove Produces ‘The League’

Negro League baseball

by Elaine Bowen

The Negro League Baseball’s triumphs and challenges through the first half of the 20th century are highlighted in this film that includes the League’s deep ties to Chicago.

Sam Pollard

The story is told through previously unearthed archival footage and never-before-seen interviews with legendary players like Josh Gibson, James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil—whose early careers paved the way for the Jackie Robinson era—as well as celebrated Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who both started out in the Negro League.

From entrepreneurial titans Cumberland Posey and Gus Greenlee, whose intense rivalry fueled the rise of two of the best baseball teams ever to play the game, to Effa Manley, the activist/owner of the Newark Eagles and the only woman ever admitted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, “The League” explores Black baseball as an economic and social pillar of Black communities and a stage for some of the greatest athletes to ever play the game, while also examining the unintended consequences of integration.

This film is fantastic in the way that it lays bare the history of the Negro League’s teams, and it’s so bad ass that Effa Manley exercised her mettle to try to salvage her team toward the end.

Bob Motley, who was an umpire in the League for 19 years, said that the Black players worked not only for whatever measly money they were earning, but because they liked playing. “They were some of best players in the game,” he said referring to Paige, Doby and Roy Campanella. He said the weight of southern oppression was lifted from his shoulders when he jumped on a freight train at the age of 17 from Alabama headed to Dayton, Ohio, to live with his uncle.

While learning about the Negro League teams, let’s not forget a Black baseball player who came many years before—Moses Fleetwood Walker, of the Toledo Blue Stockings, who was an American professional baseball catcher in the 1880’s and who historically was credited with being the first Black man to play in the Major Leagues.

“The League” also delves into the work of Andrew “Rube” Foster and his team, the Chicago American Giants, which he formed in 1910. Foster would be considered the “Father of Negro Baseball.” He popularized the “double steal” and “bunt and run” and described his teams as, “We are the ship and all else the sea,” borrowing a quote from Frederick Douglass.

Foster’s life met with a tragic demise. In 1925 leaky gas fumes were escaping in his Indianapolis boarding house. He was found unconscious and as a result his mental health began to deteriorate. He fell into a deep depression and was sent to an insane asylum, where he languished for four years before dying in 1930.

Other noted teams were the Indianapolis Clowns (where Aaron once played), Houston Colored League, the Monarch Hilldale Daisies, Homestead Grays and the Baltimore Elite Eagles, among others.

The Negro teams were playing so well that members of Major League Baseball accused them of showboating. The film notes that the Negro League teams were playing Okay, just not “the white way.”

Negro League baseball meant equality for Black players and a sport in which the entire community could participate. Baseball featuring Blacks was a hit past time, so much so that some churches would begin Sunday services at 10 a.m. so folks could attend. And the games were such a respite that Blacks came to the stadiums dressed to the nines.

The League’s 1937 East/West All-Star Game drew 50,000 fans to Comiskey Field in Chicago.

During its heyday in the 1930s and 40s, this was the crossroads of Black cultural life, enterprise, and entertainment. In Kansas City, Missouri, Negro League Baseball served as the centerpiece for successful Black-owned restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, stores, barbershops, banks, and insurance companies. “Within a 13-block radius, Black folks had everything they needed. The music was alive and businesses were thriving,” according to the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation.

The film covers the ugly head of racism that was prevalent throughout the country and certainly within the game of baseball. The recruitment of Black players to teams in Puerto Rico and Mexico for better pay and respect is also covered.

Unfortunately, when Jackie Robinson was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and other Black players after him, the fascination with the Negro League waned, and those teams slowly but surely disbanded.

Then came baseball greats Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and others working in the Major Leagues. Whether you are a baseball fan or not, this film is a great history lesson.

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”), and Executive produced by Oscar winner Questlove, “The League” will play in select Chicagoland theaters: July 9 (4 p.m.); July 10 and 12 (7:30 p.m.) — AMC Crestwood 18 // AMC Ford City 14 // AMC River East 21 // AMC Schererville 16 // AMC Streets of Woodfield 20 // AMC Village Crossing 18 // and AMC Yorktown 18.

The film will be available on Digital July 14: To rent/purchase on all major digital platforms.

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