Director Sam Pollard pairs passions for baseball and Black history in ‘The League’

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

“I grew up being a huge, huge, huge, huge, huge, huge, huge, huge baseball fan,” says “The League” director Sam Pollard. “I was really excited about getting involved in [it]. It was another opportunity to delve into a history that I thought I knew something about.” Official trailer courtesy of Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing via YouTube

Director Sam Pollard grew up a huge baseball fan, and thought he was something on an expert on the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues – until singer-songwriter-filmmaker Byron Motley approached him with a project idea. 

At the time, Motley was writing “The Negro Baseball Leagues: Tales of Umpiring Legendary Players, Breaking Barriers, and Making American History,” a book about his father Bob Motley, the last surviving umpire from the leagues in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s in the American South. 

While reminiscing with his dad, Motley had taped dozens of interviews with former Black league players for the book. Once it got published, he turned to Pollard to help him make a film based on his book. 

Motley knew that Pollard had collaborated with Spike Lee and had edited several of his films in the ‘90s such as Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, 4 Little Girls, and Bamboozled. Afterwards, Pollard pivoted to documentary filmmaking, editing, producing and directing films from the Civil Rights movement to the life of legendary Jazz drummer Max Roach, amassing titles like Slavery by Another Name, The Talk: Race in America, ACORN and the Firestorm, Mr. Soul!, and MLK/FBI, to name a few. 

With Motley’s invitation, Pollard decided to “get on board” and they created The League. The sports documentary explores the vibrant history of the Negro Baseball Leagues and it fit with Pollard’s ongoing examination of the Black experience in America. 

“I was really excited about getting involved in [it]. It was another opportunity to delve into a history that I thought I knew something about,” he claims. “But as we got into this film, I got to know more things, uncovered things that I never knew about the Negro Leagues.”  

The Negro Baseball Leagues flourished from the 1920s until the late 1940s, becoming a beloved entertainment activity in Black communities in cities like Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Kansas City, New York, and many others. 

“All these different communities had black baseball teams that thrived and flourished during this horrific period of Jim Crow and segregation,” he says, explaining that the players changed the game, bringing their “Black athletic aesthetic.”

“When Black players came into these games, these different sports, they brought a different energy, a different sort of pizzazz, a different sort of way to play the game that excited people and changed the whole trajectory of those sports.” 

Ultimately the Negro Baseball League’s fate was sealed in 1947 when Jackie Robinson blazed a trail for Black athletes to play Major League Baseball.

“You know, it's a very complicated legacy we have in America. We want a piece of the pie, what happens when you get a piece?” Pollard asks. “It's this whole thing that we struggle with time and time again in this country: Integration, but at what price?”

“The League,” now available to rent or purchase on demand, took a decade to be finished, a fact that doesn’t surprise the veteran filmmaker. 

“It's a tough business, making films. Making documentaries is a tough business, unless you really have some major celebrity or it’s a true crime story, it's difficult to raise the funds,” he says. “[And] if you have a true crime story, that's almost like money in the bank.” 

Pollard used his connections and was able to bring producer Questlove to the team.

“With his own bonafides as a filmmaker, winning an Academy Award for Summer of Soul, and then him becoming attached as an executive producer didn't hurt our cause in terms of raising the funds,” he says. 

With Questlove and the production company Radical Media backing the project, Pollard attracted financiers and secured all the funding about three years ago. 

“Now the question always comes up, ‘Is it enough money when you're in production and post production? And if it isn't enough money, what do you have to do to make sure that the money you have enables you to do what you need to do cinematically?’,” he asks.  

The money raised allowed for the hiring of an archival researcher, getting Motley’s interviews transcribed, shooting recreations and even incorporating animation to fill any gaps in the archival footage and “to really show specific games that were being played during that period of time.” 

While The League secured enough funding in a challenging environment, Pollard remains realistic, but positive about the state of documentary filmmaking.

“I've been at this game a long time and my attitude, philosophy is this: It's always an uphill climb. It's never easy to get these documentaries I want to do funded,” he states. 

“I've been through this before where things have tapered off, and then things rise up again. It will change again. This is part of what you do when you make films. You have to deal with what I call ‘the obstacles,’ and just keep plugging ahead.”




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham