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New documentary 'The League' is a celebration of the Negro Baseball Leagues

The Newark Eagles of the Negro Baseball League
Magnolia Pictures
The Newark Eagles of the Negro Baseball League

Are you familiar with the Milwaukee Bears? They were a Negro National League team that only played for one baseball season here in 1923. Although their tenure here was short, they are part of a longer historic legacy.

The Negro League was a stage for some of the world’s best athletes and also served as an important economic and social pillar for Black communities around the country. A new documentary called The League dives into the dynamic journey, triumphs, and challenges of the Negro League through the first half of the twentieth century.

It’ll be the opening night film of the Cultures & Communities Festival Thursday night at the Oriental Theater. For producer Byron Motleyand executive producer Josh Green, this story is an essential one to tell and remember. This film is dedicated to Bob Motley, Byron's father, who was a Negro Leagues umpire and co-author of the book The Negro Baseball Leagues, along with his son.

"I grew up around that history. The older I got, the more I thought about it and really appreciated the stories. I said not everybody knows these stories, which got me thinking there’s probably more to the story," says Motley.

"We need for this documentary to show the fun. Because that's what Negro League baseball was all about." - Byron Motley

Wanting to add to the amazing stories his father shared, Motley started working on this project documenting Negro League baseball's journey 24 years ago. He interviewed former players and of course, his father Bob who was the last living umpire. The League features unearthed archival footage and photographs in addition to never-before-seen interviews with players.

"And I just kind of pieced the story together as best I could. I got stories from all these great, great men and women who were part of the history of the league," explains Motley.

Baseball was very popular in the U.S. during that point in history and it was no different in the Black community. In fact, Black players and fans have always been a part of baseball history following the Civil War. As it grew, the games for teams in the Negro League were town-wide spectacles with people dressing up, staying for double or even triple headers and loving every second of the games and the atmosphere. No community could have a thriving baseball scene without a strong social and economic structure to go along with it.

"It was heaven, as my father would say, to be at a Negro League baseball game," notes Motley. "It was great fun for everybody — and that's what I kept talking to the team about, is that we need for this documentary to show the fun. Because that's what Negro League baseball was all about."

Negro League baseball umpire Bob Motley in the air.
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Byron Motley's father Bob Motley in the air making a call at a Negro League baseball game.

While there's a plentiful amount of joy and fun, the film also addresses the dark reality of how baseball history mirrors American history. From segregation to violence, the Negro League players, owners, and beyond faced many obstacles and tragedies. However, they still managed to persevere and create something amazing.

Green says, "I think we all did our best to work together to make the best movie that we could make and that the guiding spirit [is what] really drove all of us. That this was something bigger than any of us and that we were doing Bob Motley justice, and we had to do the Negro Leagues justice because we knew how important it was." He continues, "It's all about the truth and understanding history for what it was, understanding the important people that impacted history and getting it accurate."

Motley adds he hopes The League can help "keep the spirit alive. Keep learning about it yourself, never let it end. There's so much great history. It's up to all of us. It's up to all of us to keep the spirit alive."

Additional information regrading show times and tickets can be found here.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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