EXCLUSIVE: Growing up in the 1960s, director Sam Pollard lived in a household that loved baseball, specifically the St. Louis Cardinals. It was that 1961 team that consisted of a large list of African-American players that stood out to Pollard, especially in a time when rosters that looked like this were scarce across Major League Baseball.
That team would be the beginning of his love affair with baseball and the history of the sport, specifically the Negro League and the impact it would have not only on sports history but American history in the years to come.
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“I became enamored with baseball and I eventually started doing research on the Negro Leagues learning about players like Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige,” Pollard said. “What really sparked my interest was this idea that these players were playing in this league because of segregation and were not allowed to play in the major leagues because of it.”
Fast forward 50 years later and Pollard is set to direct The League, which will tell the tumultuous journey of the Negro Baseball League as it thrived and faltered in a country plagued by racism, utilizing never-before-seen interviews and previously unearthed archival footage. RadicalMedia’s Jon Kamen, Dave Sirulnick and Jen Isaacson will produce, with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Two One Five Entertainment exec producing the doc following the success of Thompson’s directorial debut Summer of Soul. Shawn Gee and Zarah Zohlman will join Thompson as exec producers for Two One Five alongside XTR.
2929 Productions/Magnolia Pictures is coming aboard to finance and distribute The League. Magnolia Pictures will handle domestic distribution.
Through the personal experience of notable Negro League umpire Bob Motley, the documentary will tell the story of a league where some of the world’s best athletes played. Once an economic and social pillar of Black communities, the league’s demise was hastened by the eventual and unintended consequences of MLB integration. Pollard said the reason Motley is at the center of the film started with his son Byron Motley reaching out to Pollard early on in his research and would soon introduce him to Bob Motley’s book Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants & Stars: Umpiring in the Negro League and Beyond, which got Pollard more excited about how compelling the story could be.
“The umpire sees everything, he sees the whole field, the strategy going on, he sees everything,” Pollard said. “Back then, they had the opportunity to travel with some of these players and these teams and interact with them and see the stuff they had to deal with like not being able to eat in certain restaurants. He could also see the fellowship that they had as teammates. On top of that, Motley also happens to also be a fantastic storyteller. The idea of building the doc around his stories was something we utilized almost immediately in this process.”
Byron Motley will executive produce The League with his partners Josh Green and Nina Dobrev for Yabba Biri Productions.
As for how the Summer of Soul producers reunited on this project, sources say Thompson and Zohlman brought it to Radical while they were in the middle of Summer of Soul production, and Radical was quick to join Thompson as a producer on the project. Insiders add both production companies are always looking for stories on collective history that most people don’t know about, especially those that had been erased, and felt The League fell in line with stories like Summer of Soul that they wanted to tell.
While it will be awhile before audiences get a chance to see Pollard’s final product with production only just beginning, Pollard says he is hopeful that once they do see it, they get to understand not only how these players had an impact on American history, but also how the communities supported them.
“There are so many American stories about the African American experience that people don’t know about, and the challenge is to tell the story but to tell it in the context of American history that will make the story even more compelling,” Pollard said. “If we do our job right, I hope people will come away appreciating the scope and impact of all these Negro League players and doing it within communities that appreciated what they did. These were communities that were thriving economically even as American segregation was going on all around them.”
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