If you thought Jackie Robinson was the first black professional baseball player, “The league” would like to suggest a correction. Moses Fleetwood Walker became a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, before organized baseball was separated and more than 60 years before Robinson broke the major league color line.
This documentary by Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”) traces the history of the negro leagues which were formed in the years that followed. And while the sport’s post-WWII integration was long overdue – one commentator cites the absurdity of black and white men fighting together on Guadalcanal but being banned from competing on a diamond – “The League” notes that, while the majors nabbed star players without buying out their contracts, the Negro leagues and the economic communities built around them never received adequate compensation.
Pollard presents the subject in a direct, sometimes dry way, with authors, historians and – in archival material – the players themselves sharing stories of team rivalries and visionary owners. Among the (sometimes tragic) characters singled out are Rube Foster, credited here with increasing the pace of the game and persuading other team owners to form a league; Josh Gibson, who still owns one of the best batting averages of the season never recorded; and Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, a team looking for talent after the color barrier fell. The film even complicates the portrayal of some baseball legends. Larry Lester, founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, notes that when Babe Ruth set the home run record — later broken by Hank Aaron — he did so at a time when racism had kept many of the best pitchers in check.
This story has surely been covered well elsewhere, but “The League” tells it with emotion.
Rated PG. Duration: 1h43. In theaters.