As a child, filmmaker Byron Motley had a front row seat to witness the glory days of Negro League baseball through the eyes of his father who was an umpire for 10 years. Those conversations have led to an epic documentary which resonates with the kind of reverence that’s similar to Ken Burns’ classic PBS documentaries on baseball history.
“The League” is Motley’s tribute to the legends of Black American baseball on and off the field. In just over 90 minutes, he chronicles in detail the anecdotes of some of the figures that brought a different flavor to America’s national game despite a racially insensitive time when players of color were not welcome in the Major Leagues.
Motley’s work, which he described to MLBbro.com in an exclusive interview, took 24 years before coming to fruition. This odyssey began in 1999 where he was encouraged to bring these stories to life for future generations. He began by tracking down many of the mythical Black legends who were alive at the time and through candid conversations he was able to frame the narratives of those times based on memories his father left with him.
The result was a seamless blend of interviews with historians, never before seen videos featuring conversations with former players, and notable fans who passed away. Together they chronicle this triumph of human spirit by a Black community during perilous social times. Owners, players, and fans who loved the game are also celebrated in this documentary.
The Iconic Poet Maya Angelou Was A Baseball Fan
One of those fans was the late poetess Maya Angelou who had a drop the mic moment when describing her recollections of being a young fan that ultimately became the title of the movie. On a trip to Winston Salem, N.C. Motley was able to score an interview with Angelou and in one of the great soundbites from the film its title was born.
“When people talked about going to the league,” Angelou recalls in grand motherly fashion on screen. “You knew they were talking about the Negro Leagues”.
Motley’s Two Decades Of Research: A Child Of The Negro Leagues
The narratives Motley uses to compliment most of the never-before-seen live action footage are not only inspired by the stories his father shared. They were from over two decades of interviews with many people who Motley knew as players and a diverse group of historians who tell this compelling story. The elder Motley was never a player himself, but officiating gave him a chance to be a part of the game.
“Being an umpire gave my father the chance to be close to his heroes,” Motley said. “During the offseason my father would run into players he knew when we were just walking down the street. I didn’t know who most of them were. They were just a bunch of old guys to me”.
However, as he grew older those memories became more important. While scouring the nation collecting interviews Motley was able to speak with some of the Negro League legends before they passed away and provided him with priceless memories.
For the first time, in many cases, Negro League legends such as Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and Monte Irvin shared on camera their memories of competing while pressing through the segregation and Jim Crow. However, their resounding theme reflected an unwavering passion for baseball by fans and players that transformed the game.
Icons such as the late Hank Aaron recalled how the pay was light, but their passion helped the players overcome the dire straits they were facing to compete in the game they loved. Aaron, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns before he came to the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers, recalled playing for three dollars per day to cover his room and board while traveling.
“You would pay for your [lodging] and then go to the grocery store,” Aaron said. “Buy some peanut butter and a loaf of bread and then head to the next town”.
However, the resilience of the Negro League is personified by the stories of the foresight displayed by Black American business leaders such as Rube Foster, Cumberland Posey, and Effa Manley — and the influence of the Black Press. Foster is credited with being the “father of Black baseball” after founding the Negro National League in 1920 which became the first successful professional league for Black American players and owning the Chicago American Giants.
Posey, who was one of the first Black Athletes at Penn State, was the principal owner of the Homestead Grays and helped them become one of the premiere franchises in sports history.
Manley’s story is perhaps one of the most significant of all the previously untold Negro League Baseball stories. Manley was literally the first woman who was give the keys to run the day-to-day operation of a professional baseball franchise.
The Black Press Chronicled The Negro Leagues
The League also pays homage to the importance of Black newspapers and the legendary writers whose commentary chronicled the leagues around the country. Had it not been for those accounts in papers such as the Amsterdam News, Afro-American, Chicago Defender, and Pittsburgh Courier, the mythology of Black American baseball would be an afterthought today.
Currently the documentary is available on most streaming platforms.