By Grace Mullen
Now that the baseball season has officially begun, fans across the nation are undoubtedly anticipating the skillful plays and thrilling games that await them in the coming months. Yet, while most people have turned their attention toward the future, a group of Fordham students got the chance to recognize some of the great baseball players of the past.
In February, the members of the West Wing Integrated Learning Community were invited to explore the legacies of athletes often left in the footnotes of sports history. The Parallel Game, a documentary produced by Eric Newland and Fordham alum George Dalton, presented students with an in-depth examination of the Negro Leagues and their profound influence on the world of baseball.
The film began with a look at the origins of Negro League baseball and the social tensions that led to its inception. Established during the days of Jim Crow and racial segregation, the Negro Leagues were of the utmost importance to black communities throughout the United States. According to filmmakers, because so much of the public sphere was considered “off-limits” to African Americans, they decided to establish their own social spaces, including churches, music clubs and, of course, baseball teams. Described during the documentary as “the jazz version of baseball,” the Negro Leagues served not only as a representation of the black community within the athletic world, but also a reinvention of the game itself.
The documentary screening was immediately followed by a discussion between Newland and Dr. Mark Naison, a professor of African American studies at Fordham. Newland, who described The Parallel Game as a major passion project of his, shared his experiences with the production of the short film, for which he interviewed dozens of historians, public figures, and athletes, including several retired Negro League players. In addition, Naison gave a deeper commentary on the radical significance of the Negro Leagues in both developing a distinctly black community and breaking the racial boundaries that divided American society.
In general, The Parallel Game offers a thought-provoking take on the central role of baseball in American life and its direct implications for black communities. The film successfully establishes the world in which its events unfurl, presenting its audience with a sweeping view of the social climate of mid-twentieth century America that made the Negro Leagues so essential. Yet in taking a more comprehensive approach to such a rich history, the documentary ultimately fails to expand upon the more compelling perspectives that were reflected in the film’s closing interviews, many of which contained first-hand accounts of life as a player in the Negro Leagues.
However, Newland and Dalton are not yet finished with the stories of these sports legends. The trials faced and victories won by black baseball players will soon be depicted, albeit fictionally, in the upcoming television series “Smoke Town,” which is currently being optioned for production by studios in Los Angeles. By grounding the story of Negro League baseball and its nationwide impact in personal narratives and interactions, the producers hope to offer audiences across America a more intimate, in-depth view of Black community life in such a tumultuous social climate.
The film was generally well received among many of the West Wing Scholars. Andrew Seger, FCRH ’19, shared his educating experience with the film.“I think it was a really thoughtful documentary that [Newland] clearly did his research and tried to really shed light on this one perspective of black culture that really isn’t talked about, but is something that was really important throughout history. So I’m glad we got to see it.”
As a visual arts major, Mary Kate Magee, FCRH ’19, focused more on the production value of the documentary. “The film did an excellent job of piecing together baseball history from a usually unseen angle, and did so in a very visually pleasing way,” Magee said.
My one critique is that the film’s false ending came at an awkward time and did nothing beneficial for the storytelling, but otherwise it was a great film with a valuable message.
Overall, The Parallel Game grants its audience a chance to take a second look at sports history and acknowledge the stories of athletes kept too long on the sidelines. By establishing the profound impact of the Negro Leagues on contemporary baseball and its players while arguing on behalf of its central role in black community life and the search for equality, The Parallel Game encouraged the West Wing Scholars to develop a deeper appreciation for the untold stories of these ground-breaking black figures in American history.