Ken Burns’ much-lauded Baseball is arguably the most comprehensive documentary about America’s favorite pastime, and runs approximately 1380 minutes. By contrast, Only the Ball Was White, a documentary about the legendary all-Negro League Baseball, runs 30 minutes. I think the 1350 minute difference in runtime says about as much as you need to know about not only the disparity between the two films, but also about the disparity between the importance placed on history and history as it pertains to blacks.

Only the Ball Was White, inspired by Robert Peterson’s book published in 1970, is the sort of documentary you might expect to see during Black History Month—if you were a sixth-grader circa 1973. But as a documentary of any depth or comprehensive historical background, the film is a cursory glance that falls woefully short of being anything other than an introduction to an introduction to a history lesson. The film gives a rudimentary historical look at the Negro League, which existed because baseball was a segregated sport until 1947, when Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, desegregating the sport. The film basically covers the official formation of the Negro League in the early 1920s, but glosses over the rich history of blacks in baseball that dates back to the 1880s. And because of the abbreviated runtime of the film, Only the Ball Was White barely begins to scratch the surface of the rich history of the league, its 24 teams or the hundreds of players. Instead, you get a quick introduction to some of the more well-known players to rise up from the ranks of the Negro League, including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Roy Campanella, and a historical overview that seems to be playing in fast-forward mode.

Produced and directed by Ken Solarz in 1980, the film actually looks like most of the “contemporary” footage comes from the early 1970s. The result is a documentary that shows its age in a way that makes it seem more like an odd time capsule piece, and can create the incorrect illusion that the film is not as important as it really is.

I want to be very careful not to sound like I’m condemning Only the Ball Was White, because I do think it is an important documentary. At the same time it is too short, and not nearly as comprehensive as it needs to be. For someone who knows nothing about the Negro Leagues, this might serve as a nice way to get them started, but it never comes close to being any sort of indispensable source of information. Taken on those terms, and as long as it clearly understood exactly what it is, then the film has some merit. And if you watched it with the made-for-cable Soul of the Game and the classic Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, you might be on your way to scratching the surface of Negro League Baseball.



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