MLB's Animated Series Tells Tales From the Negro Leagues
Timed to Black History Month, Major League Baseball has launched its first animated series, Undeniable—Stories from the Negro Leagues. Three episodes dropping this month honor men and women of color who never got an opportunity to play on the game's biggest stage because of segregation.
Impetus for the project began in 2020, when MLB recognized the 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues—which operated between 1920 and 1948—as official Major Leaguers. At that time, their records and accomplishments were incorporated into the sport's rich history.
Now, each installment of Undeniable, hosted by Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, runs between three and five minutes. You can watch the first episode, "Women of the Negro Leagues," below. "International Impact" and "Jackie Robinson & Monte Irvin" will follow in coming weeks. The work arrives as MLB faces fresh diversity issues.
Undeniable was created by Invisible Collective founder and director Justin Polk in collaboration with Carl Jones, co-founder and CEO of Martian Blueberry, one of the few Black-owned animation studios in Hollywood. They spoke with Muse about making the series, the significance of the Negro Leagues chapter of sports history, and the state of diversity across the entertainment and production fields today.
MUSE: Can you talk about why this is such a passion project for you?
JUSTIN POLK: I'm from Texas, but I spent my summers in St. Louis going to Cardinals games and watching Ozzie Smith—teams and players like that. So I was always a big baseball person—I played baseball throughout high school, and even a little bit in the summers in college. I'd heard the stories of the Jackies and Satchel Paiges and the Josh Gibsons—some of the most famous players, and I've read books about them and watched movies that pertain to them. But I never got a chance to dive deeper into the Negro Leagues. So, when I heard that Major League Baseball’s and the Negro Leagues’ records were being merged. I was determined to do something.
Why did you decide that an animated series would best serve this project?
JUSTIN POLK: We had a ton of ideas. I think I pitched about 30 to them. But to tell these stories, you want to be visual and you can't really go back and recreate this. So, through animation, you can get as close to live as possible, and people can see what these people looked like and just know how good they were through that lens. And you can exaggerate a little to make it a little more heroic, and things like that. I thought this form with Bob telling the stories was was the way to go.
Can you talk about the importance of the series at this time in history?
JUSTIN POLK: Being able to tell our story, our past, is important. Especially when we're dealing with a lot in the classrooms, with history being taken away from us. We have to preserve this history, and this is one way we can accomplish that. Bob will only be here so long, and he can't keep it all in his head. So, it's a pleasure for us to take his knowledge and put it on film. That way, he can outlast us all. Hopefully, people can come back 40, 50 or 60 years down the line and still learn this history.
As one of the few owners of a Black animation studio in Hollywood, what does Undeniable mean to you, on a personal level?
CARL JONES: It's an honor to be given the opportunity to help share these amazing, important stories with the world. And like Justin said, everyone knows Jackie Robinson. But what about all these great female baseball players like Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan?
For people of color and storytellers of color there hasn't been a lot of diversity in Hollywood, and the doors seem to have opened a little bit, in light of George Floyd. That being the case, I feel there's an opportunity to show the world who we are and what we've been through, but also the resilience that we have as a people. When you listen to these stories, you begin to realize that while they are specific to a certain people, the stories are also very universal.
Talk about some of the creative choices you made.
CARL JONES: One of the challenges we faced was catching the nostalgia of the era, but also making it feel contemporary. Also, I wanted to deliver the weight of the stories that we're telling. Finding the right visual language that accomplished all of this was a bit of a challenge. We ended up using a lot of heavy black shadows and lines on the characters to give it that weightiness. We combined that with some muted color palettes to capture the nostalgic feel of the era. Then I borrowed some things from anime, like the very cinematic storytelling, using strong compositions, dynamic angles and energetic action sequences to make it feel fun.
What's your goal with this series?
CARL JONES: Just to be a part of the solution. As Black creatives, we are trying to move the needle and actually open up doors for more people to come into the industry. The main goal of our company is to capture these cultural nuances in order to bring a certain level of authenticity to all of our animation, Often, once our stories are built through the Hollywood prism, we have to sacrifice a lot in order to communicate what they consider to be on a universal level. I think the more specific we are, and the more honest it is to a very select group of people, the more intriguing and interesting it is to others. This is huge in showing how our stories can resonate outside of our community.