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The League: The Color of Baseball

A new documentary takes a look at an aspect of baseball whose origins are unpleasant, but which produced its share of joy.

Rube Foster (center) while managing the 1916 Chicago American Giants, from THE LEAGUE, a Magnolia Pictures release.
© Hake’s Auction. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I came to baseball late in life, moving to Arizona in 2000. So that’s basically Year 0 of my fandom, and with the D-backs having only been founded a couple of seasons previously, baseball history largely doesn’t exist for me. I’m a present/future kinda fan. I guess I have the foundations adequately covered, from Babe Ruth through Jackie Robinson to the Sosa/McGwire chase. But I freely admit my limited knowledge in this area. After watching The League, a documentary Wes brought to my attention, I feel better informed about one aspect of the sport’s legacy. Though I have a strong sense this is a veritable iceberg, with a great deal more still not included.

The topic here is the Negro Leagues, which came into being not long after the end of the Great War. Initially, there had been no formal segregation in baseball, with players like Moses Fleetwood Walker playing for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. These players were gradually squeezed out, and formed their own clubs, although there was no formal structure until the Negro National League was founded, covering Midwest teams, in 1920 by Rube Foster, owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants. Three years later, the Eastern Colored League was formed, and eventually, the champions of each would face off in the Colored World Series.

While their fortunes would rise and fall along with the country, there’s no question, their top talent was the equal of the best in the American and National League. The documentary covers both the players, and the less well-known names who ran the teams. For example, Cumberland Posey, who played for, managed and eventually owned, the Homestead Grays. In the thirties his outfit was in a fierce cross-town rivalry with Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords. Top players like Josh Gibson switched sides multiple times during the decade, playing for both teams. Or there’s Effa Manley, who co-owned the Newark Eagles with her husband, and is the only woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Newark Eagles in their dugout in 1936, from THE LEAGUE, a Magnolia Pictures release.
© Yale University Art Gallery. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

But it’s the players who made the leagues the success they were, becoming so popular local churches would adjust their service times on Sundays, so as not to clash with games. This is likely when the film is at its best, with a sublime mix of interviews, archive footage and re-creations, which does a great job of bringing the league to life. It stresses how the style of play was very different from the while leagues, emphasizing speed and defense rather than just bashing the ball out of the park. Though Gibson proved quite capable of doing that, with a HR/AB ratio comparable to the best sluggers.

There are times a bias is obvious. It rightly notes Babe Ruth’s HR total came without facing the best black pitchers. Yet Gibson’s career average is touted, without mentioning it came against a far smaller talent pool. Or it criticizes the majors for taking the top black players without compensating clubs - which seems little different from how Posey and Greenlee operated. In general though, this is lovingly crafted and occasionally thought-provoking. Jackie Robinson and the end of segregation marked the effective end of the Negro Leagues. Their best players were siphoned off and the rest abandoned, eventually killing a wholly black-owned and operated industry. As the film notes, something was certainly lost: “What was right ethically, what was right morally, was devastating economically.”

I do think there’s a lot more which could be told here, with the 103 minutes sometimes feeling like it barely scratches the surface. I was definitely left wanting to know more: indeed, even in writing this, I ended going down a rabbit-hole of Wikipedia articles. The need for the Negro Leagues to exist is an ugly part of American history. On the other hand, what was created has to be one of the most remarkable and uplifting stories in baseball. This documentary does both of those aspects justice.

[The League is in theaters now, and will be available on-demand from Friday]