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The Pride of the Game

Luminous paintings by Kadir Nelson re-create the power and majesty of the Negro leagues, in a time when some of the game's greats played in undeserved obscurity -- but with undiminished passion

Posted: Wednesday March 5, 2008 11:11AM; Updated: Wednesday March 5, 2008 11:14AM
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• Gallery: The Pride of the Game
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion

By Phil Taylor

Illustrations from We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson, published by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, an imprint of the Disney Book Group. 2008 by Kadir Nelson. Children's books illustrated by Nelson have won the NAACP Image Award and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and his paintings have been exhibited at galleries and museums in the U.S. and abroad.

The artist finds beauty even where there seems to be none, and in that way Kadir Nelson and the men of the Negro leagues are soul mates. Negro leagues baseball (1920-47) was an exquisite flower grown from poisonous soil -- the ugly racial attitudes of 20th-century America -- and nurtured by men who refused to allow the ignorance that barred them from the major leagues to extinguish their passion for the game. Nelson, some 60 years later, saw the dignity in that passion and has honored it with a book of oil paintings, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, depicting Negro leagues stars and game scenes, some of which grace these pages.

As a new baseball season approaches, there is no better time to be reminded of a part of the game's past that remains hidden in shadow. Though created through a combination of Nelson's research and his imagination, the paintings have a stunningly authentic feel, right down to the veins in Buck O'Neil's hands, the sinews of Josh Gibson's massive forearms and the curve of Satchel Paige's long fingers over the stitching of the baseball. Certainly the emotions the paintings evoke could not be more real.

Before his death in 2006 O'Neil saw the painting on the previous spread, which portrays him as manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, arms folded, one foot on the top step of the dugout. "Buck seemed to step back in time when he saw Kadir's images," says San Diego Padres owner John Moores, who was with O'Neil at the time. "It was an extraordinary moment."

Perhaps O'Neil felt a touch of melancholy, just as we do now. It is hard to look at what Nelson -- a 33-year-old award-winning painter and illustrator from Atlantic City -- has done without thinking about how much richer these men might have made the history of the big leagues. Where might the Bunyanesque Gibson rank on the alltime home run list if not for the discrimination that marred his era? Would James (Cool Papa) Bell's name be as synonymous with smooth centerfield play as that of his white contemporary Joe DiMaggio? How many of the faces in these paintings would be instantly recognizable today if only they had been allowed on the biggest stage?

Nelson, a student of baseball history who spent almost eight years on this project, shows us what we missed, re-creating life in the Negro leagues -- and in the Latin American leagues in which some black players spent the winter -- with painstaking attention to detail. He bought replica uniforms and photographed himself in them, then studied the photos for the sake of authenticity. "I wanted to see how the folds of the fabric looked, how the light fell," he said. "You have to get the small things right, or it doesn't work. The real lovers of the game are looking to see if you have the seams on the baseball or the script on the uniforms exactly right."

He did take some artistic license, partly because so much of what he searched for had gone unrecorded or was not preserved, including photographs of ballparks and some jersey numbers, and partly to satisfy his artist's eye. Though Bell was a centerfielder, for instance, Nelson's painting shows him in front of the rightfield wall at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., because the advertisements on that part of the fence were visually more interesting. The players no doubt would have allowed Nelson such small liberties in return for the way he captured on canvas not just their athleticism but also their dignity. "My work is all about healing and giving people a sense of hope and nobility," he says. "I want to show the strength and integrity of the human being and of the human spirit." He found the perfect subjects in the Negro leagues players, who were so undeterred by the injustice they faced that they considered it merely the turb founder Rube Foster, in the quote from which the book draws its title. "All else, the sea."

Consider the proud, powerful men in these paintings, and you will understand how they kept the ship on course in such difficult times. You will understand also that the artist and the athletes became partners in this process, creators of a thing of beauty that, like the legacy of the Negro leagues, will last forever.