Thursday, February 07, 2008

"We Were Ballplayers:" We Are the Ship: The Story of the Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

Every once in a while a book comes along with such weight and beauty that you just know it's going to be around for a long time. Kadir Nelson's We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball is one of those.

Already an artist with a string of awards to his credit, Nelson has created illustrations of players from the old Negro Baseball Leagues that are both arresting and irresistable. Their subjects, planted solidly on the ground of their own time, look straight out at us through the years, forcing us to take a hard, honest look at their achievements. From the lanky Satchell Paige, all long limbs, big feet and mythic ability to the massive Josh Gibson, full of dark, glowering power waiting to explode at the plate, to the spotlessly turned-out players, in natty suits and hats, stepping lightly from their private train, the paintings bring the players to full-blooded life. Done in a series of heroic-dimensioned oil paintings for exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, they are surely Kadir Nelson's masterworks, worthy of any or all of the major awards to be handed out in the year to come.

But it is his writing in this book which brings their stories to life. Nelson's prose is lively and appealing as he chronicles (in chapters titled "First Inning" to "Extra Innings") the roots of the Negro leagues in the early days of baseball mania which swept the country in the mid-1800's, when players of all races sometimes mixed in local pick-up games, through the re-segregation post-Reconstruction and post-1887, when Rube Foster began to organize what eventually became the Eastern Colored League and the Hilldale League. Kadir describes with relish those colorful days of floating rules, hardscrabble accomodations, and survival of the fittest, flat-out, every-man-for-himself play on the field. Sharpened spikes, juiced balls, handmade bats, Y.M.C.A.'s used as locker rooms, days and nights spent on buses, and catch-as-catch-can meals are all described in detail. More so than even their white counterparts, Black players of the era had to love the game above all else to stick with it. "I ain't never had a job," Nelson quotes pitcher Satchell Paige, "I just played baseball."

Turned away from hotels and restaurants and restrooms everywhere, sometimes sleeping in back rooms and jails and seedy hotels with the lights left on all night to keep the bedbugs away, payed sporadically and poorly for the most part, most players were happy just for the chance to play the game, and play it they did. In its heyday, Negro League ball sometimes outdrew the white major league teams. In winter ball, they beat white teams more than they lost. Satchell Paige and white superstar pitcher Dizzy Dean filled stadiums when they barnstormed together in the western states. "We loved the game so much we just looked past everything else. We were ballplayers." Nelson tells the sometimes funny and sometimes sad stories of the stars of Negro baseball with such zest that the players themselves shine through the statistics and dates and places. One great tale of Satchell Paige has his team in the field as the unlighted ballpark sinks past twilight into near darkness. Conferring at the mound, Satch and his catcher decide it's too dark for the ump to see the ball anyhow, so as Satch winds up and pretends to deliver the pitch, the catcher slaps his mitt loudly as if he had caught a fastball.

"Strike three!" calls the umpire.

The batter wheels to protest to the ump. "You blind, Tom? Anybody who could see knows that ball was high and inside!"

In the ninth chapter, "Ninth Inning," Nelson recounts the beginnings of the end of Negro baseball. As diehard segregationist "Kennesaw Mountain" Landis was replaced by Happy Chandler as baseball commissioner in 1944, things began to change. "If a colored boy can make it on Okinawa and Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball," Chandler said. It took several years to groom a player to break the color line in major league baseball, but after being vetted by a year on the all-white Montreal Triple-A team, Jackie Robinson finally took the field. "Why Jackie? We had guys we though were better. We look back and we see that they found the right man." Jackie had the right stuff to take the abuse and play the game at a high level, and ironically his triumph was the beginning of the end of the Negro Baseball Leagues. Crowds dwindled at their games, until when they folded a few years later, they wryly admitted "We couldn't even draw flies."

But Kadir Nelson speaks for all those players who made the case for African American athletes by their skill and perseverance. Speaking for them, he writes, "Those guys stand on our shoulders. We cleared the way for them and changed the course of history." Kadir tells the story of all of those guys, the great and the near-great players and the stubborn management which kept the game alive for African Americans through those years.

Adding to a highly readable text appealing to children and adults, baseball fans and history buffs, Nelson's book has extensive backmatter, with a bibliography and filmography, endnotes, and index. The book's foreword was written by Hank Aaron, who says,

"Kadir's powerful paintings eloquently bring this era to life and speak volumes about the old Negro Leagues. I know I wouldn't have made it in baseball had those legends not paved the way for me."

Just in time for Black History Month, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball is a must-have for all libraries and serious sports fans of all ages. In all fairness, however, Michelle Green's A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson deserves a place on the shelf as well, telling as it does the amazing story of Mamie Johnson, who as a teenage fastball pitcher was taught to throw a curveball by Satchell Paige himself and made a place for herself on the Negro League's Indianapolis team. Not surprisingly, Green's book is also illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

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