The great hero Jackie Robinson was the first Black player in baseball, and Branch Rickey was the high-minded owner who made it happen.
Only one of these things is true. Robinson was a hero.
As many of you will know, there were some Black players in baseball, on integrated teams, back in the 19th century. But after Reconstruction, when white supremacists felt their moment had come, they forced out Black players (Cap Anson, a top star of his day, refused to play against integrated teams).
And Rickey was kind of a jerk. In some ways.
How many of these things you already knew might determine how much you enjoy The League, a recent documentary about the Negro Leagues directed by Sam Pollard (who did a wonderful Netflix documentary about NBA superstar Bill Russell, and MLK/FBI about Hoover’s hatred of Dr. King).
The problem with The League is it’s far too short, at 103 minutes. It should have been its own series — boo on no streaming service or cable network for financing one. (Bill Russell: Legend is twice as long, it’s two episodes, it’s great.) I was familiar with many of these stories already; just Satchel Paige alone could take up 103 minutes and leave some fascinating stuff out. I would have liked a mention of Toni Stone, a childhood Saint Paul resident who played several years as a defensive specialist for various teams and was the first woman in men’s professional baseball.
Yet even when I knew some of the basics, the archival footage is fantastic. And especially the interviews (some audio only, some filmed) of the players and owners (and an umpire!) themselves. (There’s also audio of actors reading those old players’ words; it’s well-done, but not the same.)
I did not know the story of Effa Manley. She married Abe Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, and took over the business side of the team — so, basically, the first female GM. (And she’s in the Hall Of Fame!) Her ethnic background is unclear. She definitely presented as Black, but was very light-skinned and may/may not have had Black parents. (I’ve got a dictionary from the 1930s in our house which actually has a definition for “octaroon.”)
The Eagles were very profitable, as most Negro Leagues teams were — and, as the film doesn’t mention, drew a fair number of white baseball fans who wanted to see the legends for themselves.
But, of course, MLB integration after Robinson meant most teams losing their best players, and, gradually, their audience.
Another thing I didn’t know was that, in general, Negro League teams weren’t paid for MLB taking their players. Today, when MLB signs a player from Japan, they pay that team, and have to go through a complex process to do so. Negro League team owners weren’t paid. MLB owners just acted like Negro League contracts didn’t exist.
And Branch Rickey started this; he didn’t pay those team owners a dime.
Effa Manley actually got paid. A bit. When Cleveland signed their star, Larry Doby, she got $10,000. A decent amount of money back then. But, as she told the Indians owner, “if I was a white team owner, you’d have to give me $100,000 for him.” Cleveland’s owner agreed, yet insisted; $10,000 was all he could afford.
That Cleveland Indians owner was Bill Veeck. And his son, Mike, is the subject of another recent documentary, The Saint Of Second Chances. (He used to run the St. Paul Saints.)
It’s another fine film, directed by two moviemakers; Morgan Neville made the touching Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers, and Mark Hogancamp did a heartbreaking story, Marwencol, about a man who suffered brain damage in a random ruthless beating and processed it by making detailed war dioramas from dolls. (Both movies were adapted into fictional Hollywood dramas, and both the fictional films are vastly inferior: see the originals.)
The story of Second Chances is the story of how Mike Veeck grew up with baseball in his blood, and how he always felt in his father’s shadow. Bill Veeck was a loving father, but also a baseball legend. According to him, at least, he tried integrating the game before Rickey did. And planted the first ivy at Wrigley Field. He definitely was the first owner to put player names on jerseys, install lights for night games, and use a 3’6” pinch-hiiter to draw walks (a practice MLB immediately banned).
By the time Mike was old enough to be his dad’s director of marketing for the White Sox, Bill Veeck was pretty much the last MLB owner whose money came strictly from baseball; the other owners were rich guys who bought teams. The Sox weren’t doing well on the field or at the gate, and Mike wanted to come up with a promotion as innovative as what his dad had done.
And so he teamed up with a shock jock Chicago radio DJ to do Disco Demolition Night. Which was a disaster. Mike Veeck had no idea how much of anti-disco sentiment was simply anti-Black and anti-gay, and how much that would rile up bored, casually bigoted fans. (Although starting a doubleheader at 6:00 and promising dynamite plus a shock jock in-between games to a bunch of drunken fans was never going to end well.)
Basically out of shame that he let his dad down, Veeck sunk into the Adult Beverages for many years, until he got the chance to build a baseball team from nothing; the sub-low-A, independent-league Saints, playing in a ratty little-used municipal stadium in Minnesota, where there already was a recent World Series-winning team just a few minutes down I-94. (The I-94 that tore through Toni Stone’s old Rondo neighborhood, incidentally, and seriously harmed a vibrant Black community in Saint Paul.)
Again, much of this story I already knew. And some good stuff is left out; when Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause, Bill Veeck was the only person then in MLB to testify on his behalf before the Supreme Court. (Asked to put out his cigar, he rolled up his pants and put it out on his wooden leg, which he’d lost to a random bacterial infection in the Army, it wasn’t a battle wound).
But the filmmakers do a very clever thing here. They use re-enactments to show the elder Bill Veeck hobknobbing in the back rooms with players and sportswriters, and show kid Mike being in awe of him... and they use Mike Veeck to play his dad in these re-enactments.
It’s funny, and it reinforces the themes of the movie; that Mike felt he could never live up to his dad's legacy, and finally made his mark on baseball in his own way. (With the very huge help of a very patient wife who also knew when to tell Mike, “stop wallowing and get your shit together,” a sentiment not-unfamiliar in our home.)
The main thing I didn’t know here? Darryl Strawberry, who was signed by the Saints after addiction struggles had derailed his MLB career, really loved his time in Minnesota. And he struck up a friendship with Dave Stevens, who played for the Saints without legs or prostheses.
(Was that a promotional hire worthy of Bill Veeck? Yes. Had Bill lost a leg? Yes, if “only” the one. Was Stevens an amazing athlete? Yes. So I don’t think Mike Veeck hiring Dave Stevens was exploitative in the slightest.)
I would have liked more documentary footage of the Midway Stadium days. CHS is a nice new ballpark, and didn’t cost the public very much; it was a good investment. But it feels like a high-quality AAA stadium, and did even before it was one. (Veeck sold to something called “Diamond Baseball Holdings” in 2023.) CHS has luxury boxes. Midway, uh, did not.
Midway Stadium was more my kind of place; it was ratty and the “concourse” smelled like pee and it had a “petting zoo” full of mangy creatures who looked like they could be Patient Zero in the next pandemic. I felt right at home. Like I always did in the Metrodome more than Target Field. But things move on; the Saints have, and Veeck has. (He's running another independent-league team with his son.)
These are both documentaries worth watching, but I was more frustrated with “The League” because it left so, so much more out. Again; that’s strictly on the TV companies who haven’t bankrolled the Negro Leagues documentary series which that whole story so gloriously deserves.
Meanwhile, there’s a whole film on one also fascinating baseball promotions/owner guy, who has a great story, and his dad had great stories, and I enjoyed it. But let’s do those other stories, too! (Paige, like Bill Veeck, was known to stretchhhhh the truth a bit in service of a good story.)
MLB: The Show in this year’s game had short unlockable featurettes on some of those old greats (some virtually unknown today) which were beautifully done, and only began to tell those stories. We shouldn’t have to pay $60 to see these!
(Actually, one YouTuber put all the shorts together for us:
The presenter here is Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, and an excellent storyteller himself. You know how many comments are on this very good collection of history shorts? 2. Two.)
A fun book I’d recommend to anyone is The End Of Baseball, by Minnesota author Pete Schilling. It’s a “what-if” novel imagining that Veeck bought the 1943 Phillies and stacked the team with Negro League superstars (as Veeck claimed he’d tried to do; this may/may not be true). Schilling, who was working in retail at the time, packs a lot of humor and drama into the story, giving each player their due as both a baseball talent and a complicated human being; Josh Gibson in 1943 was still-great, but also drinking harder than ever.
These two movies? I’d suggest The League as an intro class to Negro Leagues history, and the historical interview clips are wonderful. I’d suggest The Saint Of Second Chances to any fan of the Saints, or anyone who just wants to see Mike Veeck spin a yarn; he’s good at it, just like his dad.
The Saint Of Second Chances is currently streaming on Netflix, and The League is now available on DVD from your public library. Use your libraries, kiddos; they rule.
Last note: The Saint Of Second Chances also mentions that Ila Borders played for the Saints in 1997, which is terrific; she was "the first woman in men's professional baseball." But she wasn’t! Toni Stone was!