‘The League’: Baseball Doc Puts Crucial History Under Museum Glass

The Newark Eagles in Dugout in 1936, from ‘The League’. Yale University Art Gallery / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Sam Pollards The competition, a documentary about black baseball and the leagues that sustained it during segregation, is manna for baseball freaks and context lovers alike. Getting your head around Satchel Paige’s success rate to match Nolan Ryan’s is one thing; understanding that Paige was forced to sleep on top of his suitcase in the ballpark after the game because no hotel would accommodate him because of his skin color is another thing entirely.

THE COMPETITION ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Sam Pollard
Duration: 103 minutes.

Jumping back and forth between achievement and injustice, The competitionlike a midfielder following a high ball bumps into the same fence that impedes so many narratives of African American achievement in 20th century racist America. Do you focus on the joy of achieving and occasionally transcending figures like Rube Foster, a dominant pitcher gifted with a mind for business who organized the first Negro National League? Or do you focus on the impossible odds he faced as he did, knocked down and eliminated just as he and the league were gaining momentum?

Drawing on scholars like talking heads and the disembodied story of recently departed League participants like Hank Aaron and umpire Bob Motley, Pollard’s film evens out the difference. Thereby, The competition softens the impact of both. We’re told that the celebration and camaraderie of black baseball rivaled that of the black church (leading to some Kansas City churches changing the time of Sunday services to accommodate the day’s double headline). But the revelry never flows off the screen; instead, it remains trapped under museum glass.

Referee Bob Motley in the air, from ‘The League’. Byron Motley/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“The real impact of the East-West game is that the white sportswriters started writing about it,” says an expert on the League’s inaugural 1933 All-Star game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Real? Moments before, the film had convincingly argued that the “real impact” had been the game itself: what it meant to play along and witness such exuberant and aggressive baseball surrounded by so much pomp and circumstance.

The film shows an understanding of how events such as World War I and II, the Great Depression and the Great Migration shaped the Negro League and its player. (It was strange, after what we’ve all been through in the past three years, not to mention the turmoil of the 1918 flu pandemic—one of the biggest pandemics in history—when we talked about the “Red Summer” race riots of 1919.)

In addition to Chicago and Kansas City, the film rightly centers Pittsburgh, home of the Homestead Grays, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Black newspaper The Pittsburgh courier— as both the beating heart of the Negro League and a critical turning point of Major League Baseball’s eventual integration.

The competition effectively links the baseball acumen of Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley and her early civil rights activism by organizing boycotts of department stores that would not hire black salespeople. By the time former Kansas City Monarch Jackie Robinson became “the inkblot on the white canvas of injustice” by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, you have a deep sense of what has been overcome. But the breakthrough feels intellectual rather than emotional, befitting a movie that takes on the bleak studious sheen of a graduate school seminar.

There is little room for the silliness and eccentricity that has always been part of both baseball and the pursuit of old boys who talk too seriously about men playing a child’s game. Even Ken Burns’ Basketball, a series whose style may have been influenced too much The competition, found moments of comedic levity. (While the film finds room for fresh voices like author Andrea Williams, it also relies on well-known figures like essayist and scholar Gerald Early, a mainstay of Burn’s many series, including Basketball.)

It’s a fascinating moment to reflect on a history where lavish achievement takes shape in a cauldron of systemic injustice. Negro League hats sell for top dollars, and you can play Negro League players in “story mode” in the video game MLB The Show 23. Still, the game itself may have never felt so far removed from black culture: last year’s Astros-Phillies matchup was the first World Series played since 1950 without a US-born black player.

By presenting this crucial cultural phenomenon in a determined documentary form and in the reverent tone of a hushed teacher, The competition has the unintended impact of making black baseball seem old rather than a living history.

Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.

'The League' review: This black baseball doc puts crucial history under museum glass

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