The League Director Sam Pollard Talks Powerful Baseball Documentary


Acclaimed filmmaker Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI) is a delightful storyteller. The man nabbed an Emmy Award (Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming) for the film By the People: The Election of Barack Obama. He was also nominated for an Oscar, along with Spike Lee, for 4 Little Girls. Now, he’s at the helm of The League, a powerful documentary that illuminates the fascinating journey of Negro League baseball — from its triumphs to its challenges — through the first half of the 20th century.

It’s a towering achievement with a wonderfully told story featuring previously unearthed archival footage and never-before-seen interviews with legendary players like Buck O’Neil and Satchel Paige; their early careers created a path for Jackie Robinson and Hall-of-Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, all of whom began in the Negro Leagues.

Of the new project, Pollard immediately noted that he believes people will be immediately surprised by the fact that there were Black baseball players who played on Black baseball teams for more than 40 years. Besides Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams, there were other great but lesser known players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell.

The work also 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.” It boldly examines the unintended consequences of integration, too. Sam Pollard shared more with MovieWeb in this exclusive interview.

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The League Black baseball players
Magnolia Pictures

No doubt the director’s sharp talents and past fuel this engaging story. Sam Pollard grew up in the 1960s. He was a huge baseball fan, mostly thanks to his father, whose favorite team was the St. Louis Cardinals. He recalled how the team had a roster of great players, many of whom were Black or Latino. “They were a team that excited ball fans during that decade and would go on to win the 1964 and 1967 World Series,” noted Pollard, adding that he had learned about the Negro Leagues and back then, but “only really knew about Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. Fast-forward to 2016 and a young man named Byron Motley, whose dad, Bob Motley, have been and umpire, reaches out to me and says, ‘We’d really like to attach you as a director to work on a film about the Negro Leagues. I have interviews with my dad and shot interviews with former players.’”

And so began the whole process of raising money for the project. All of it, Pollard said, reignited his love for baseball. “Finally, we were able to bring on Questlove as an executive producer, and RadicalMedia and Magnolia Pictures on the project, and things started happening in 2020.”

Related: Best Black History Movies That Are Perfect for Kids

Filming began that year, and the doc was wrapped this last spring. “It’s been wonderful,” said Pollard. “In a way, it was a full circle moment for me — from this 14-year-old in the ’60s who loved baseball to this 71-year-old in 2021 who said, ‘Oh, baseball, I forgot how good it was.’”

Why The League Scores a Home Run

Rube Foster (center) while managing the 1916 Chicago American Giants, from THE LEAGUE by Sam Pollard
Magnolia Pictures

Many things stand out in The League, but take note of entrepreneurial wizards like Cumberland Posey and Gus Greenlee, whose heated rivalry somehow gave birth to two of the best baseball teams ever to play the game. There’s Effa Manley, too, the activist/owner of the Newark Eagles and the only woman who was ever admitted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. With executive producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Summer of Soul) and Tariq Trotter (Descendant) on board there is plenty of passion behind the endeavor.

“I’d say this film was a fulfillment of something,” noted Pollard. “I’ve been very fortunate that in the past four or five years, I’ve been able to work on films and this helped me go back in my past, and sort of relive it, and replenish myself with an emotional perspective.”

Related: 10 Must-Watch Sports Documentaries

He credits the doc’s intrepid research team, particular archival producer Helen Russell, who’s done many sports documentaries. “She knew where a lot of the bodies were buried in terms of neighborly aficionados. She was able to reach out to these men and women and find stills, news headlines, and footage that would help us tell the story. And then we brought in a wonderful story producer named Robin Espanola who helped in finding people we could interview.”

On the Importance of the Negro League

Sam Pollard director of the League
Magnolia Pictures

When asked about one of the signature themes the doc explores — the benefits of having a Negro League and African American baseball players, Pollard quickly pointed out:

Anytime a person from the Black community got involved in the sport that had been a majority white sport like basketball and baseball, it changed the whole tempo and the feeling of the game. If you think about the baseball in the ’20s, and ’30s, it was a game basically built around the notion of someone like a Babe Ruth coming up to the plate. And if he got a good pitch, he would hit a home run and go from base to base to base.

“The Negro League players are playing a more tempo game,” continued Pollard. “They’re running bases, stealing bases. That’s integrated into the game. Watch some of the footage of Jackie Robison… he’s much more emotional and entertaining playing the game, you know. That led to people like Rickey Henderson and Reggie Jackson. These players put personality into the game, presenting not only their skills, but their presence. They put panache, charm, and energy to the game.”

Pollard’s film captures that energy and charm, and lives up to it, too. Magnolia Pictures will release The League exclusively in AMC Theaters on July 7, and it will be available on digital July 14.

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