MLB’s ‘Undeniable’ animated shorts give life to Negro Leagues baseball
League partners with ‘The Boondocks’ creator for unique education on Jackie Robinson, Monte Irvin, women of the Negro Leagues and more
They say baseball is a child’s game. For Black History Month, Major League Baseball is rolling out a series of animated shorts called Undeniable — Stories from the Negro Leagues designed to educate children about the history of the players whom just a few years ago were recognized by MLB as legitimate.
Narrated by legendary Negro League Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, it’s a fresh look at some of the stories that many adults don’t know, never mind the kids in MLB’s potential target audiences online. As far as ways to connect with the Black community go, tapping Kendrick is an obvious choice, but MLB didn’t just work with any random animators. They went with one of the most well-known names in the community, even if you only recognize him by his work.
“We tell a human story first, and then we wrap the heightened comedy and some of the more abrasive humor around that. But at its core, we’re always telling a very human story,” said Carl Jones, a producer of animated TV hits such as The Boondocks and Black Dynamite. “When you look at The Boondocks, that story was really about the relationship between Huey, Riley and Granddad, and them having to deal with the world as young Black men living without a mother, you know what I mean? Or a matriarch in the house. And so, it’s always rooted and anchored in humanity and telling a human story.
“So, for us, this was really no different. Because we were telling a story about baseball, but we were actually still telling these very universal stories about people that are relatable to anybody regardless of what race or nationality you are.”
The stories encompass three stories: the women of the Negro Leagues, the league’s international impact and of course, the relationship of baseball pioneers Jackie Robinson and Monte Irvin. Episodes will be featured on YouTube Kids, MLB’s Official YouTube page, MLB.com/originals, MLB.tv and the MLB app.
“I had directed a commercial for MLB, it was like a Yelli and Belli thing a couple years back. And when the news dropped of the records [of MLB and the Negro Leagues] being combined, I said, ‘Oh, they got to do something,’ ” said Justin Polk, founder of the Invisible Collective, a group that works with diverse talent in production to create sports-related content. “I’m somebody who I thought had a little bit of history behind me and baseball. And then, I think the one thing was interesting that Bob had said at one time was, he had just mentioned off the cuff in one of our talks on one of our Zooms, ‘the Negro Leagues were in Japan before Babe Ruth was there.’ And I was like, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting.’ So, I think those stories kind of stuck with me. And we filmed more, we have more in the bank. Hopefully we’ll animate those later down the line.”
“I mean, there was already this idea that there were a lot of great iconic legends of that time. But I had no idea about the actual specifics of their story, and seeing the obstacles that they face and how they literally changed the entire landscape for baseball. And how it also impacted the community of that time, making the transition from the Negro Leagues into the majors. So that was really eye-opening,” Jones said.
The animation style itself will be familiar to parents. The comedic exaggerations and pop-artish color palettes are a perfect tool for portraying moments in history that don’t feature the usual suspects in animated form. In short, it looks really cool. The inspiration was drawn from more than just bawdy Black cartoons of yesterday.
“It was definitely a lot of inspiration from Kadir Nelson [a black visual artist whose work is often depicted on the cover of The New Yorker], also Ernie Barnes. If you remember the old Good Times paintings, where these characters were very exaggerated and elongated,” Jones said. “So, we pushed it a little bit, not quite that far, but we wanted each of these characters to come to life and have this visual language that felt like it was almost music. You know what I mean? That it had a heartbeat and it was different. It was a characterization of these people in a way that was appealing without having to compromise your ability to identify who they are. It was finding that nice balance where we wanted to make them recognizable, but also stretch it a little bit and push the boundaries in terms of the stylization.”
So, while you won’t get the magnificent philosophizing of Thugnificent, a Boondocks character, or the sweet stylings of Honey Bee from Black Dynamite, it will certainly feel familiar. They strike me as the kind of thing you show either in a museum itself, or to say, kids at a baseball camp or after-school care program. Part of a larger slate of Black History Month initiatives for the season, this one is certainly the most artistic.
The roots of connectivity to real live Black artists isn’t exactly going to start filling up MLB rosters with Black players, but that’s not the point. Part of what made the Negro Leagues so special is that it was about a lot more than just the game, from a business and culture standpoint. If the only way we can find ourselves in and around the sport is by playing, then the survival of our culture doesn’t have a chance.
It’s something that isn’t remotely new to Jones, having been around Hollywood for decades.
“Looking at these stories, like Jackie Robinson in particular, I can relate a lot to what he went through in that time. Obviously an entirely different set of circumstances, and things were a lot worse then. But we still face a lot of adversity in Hollywood as well,” Jones noted.
“We hear this need for diversity and inclusion, but you don’t see a lot of action taking place. And when there is an attempt to be more inclusive, a lot of times it’s not authentic, or it needs to be filtered through a white gaze, or there needs to something outside of the actual experience that we’re trying to bring to the screen in order for it to be relatable to a wider audience. And so that is something that I’m constantly challenged with. So these stories really resonated with me, just because I’m experiencing some very similar things in Hollywood.”
Little things like Jazz Chisholm being on the cover of MLB The Show 23 or Home Run Derbies on island beaches really do make a difference in terms of how the average person believes they can connect to the game. Look at the NBA right now — the games are barely even the most important part of the product. What people connect to is everything around them and the humans who do it, on or off the court.
The chasm between MLB and the rest of the world isn’t going to be one only fixed by reminding people that Black folks used to do it on the diamond with way more swag. It’s going to take people who come from roots of the game that aren’t based in the sport’s awful past and present.
You can’t outsource everything forever and expect to survive. At some point, it does have to change from the inside.
“I mean, it’s necessary. It really is. For this game to grow and to stay relevant is necessary, because everybody’s going towards basketball, football, even soccer, whatever. Baseball has been losing the cool factor for a while,” Polk said in all seriousness.
“To have them come back and give us this access, and to be able to do something that is cool. When we tried to do the music [for Undeniable], I tried to make the music young vibes. I wasn’t trying to go to that classical … you know? It was like, let’s get something on there that makes people feel something, not just be some elevator music. So, I see what baseball’s doing, I’m very happy they’re going that route. They talk about it in their meetings, they’re really focused on it. I’m happy with the direction they’re going. It’s [an old league], it’s got a lot of ‘get off my lawn’ people. So, it’s going to be hard, but I think they’re pushing the right direction.”