In his new book, “We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball,” illustrator Kadir Nelson discovers not only a voice for baseball heroes of yesteryear, but for his own transition to author.
The book recently won Nelson two American Library Association awards. Nelson’s previous work is on display at the Eric Carle Museum in “Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson” through May 6.
Nelson first became aware of the existence of the league in the 1990s, when he was commissioned to do a painting about it while still a student at the Pratt Institute. Doing research lead him to the Ken Burns documentary about baseball, particularly the episode “Shadow Ball,” which featured former Negro League manager and player Buck O’Neil talking about his experience. Nelson was immensely taken by O’Neil’s experiences.
“I wanted to know more, and I wanted to paint more than just the one painting I was working on,” Nelson said. “I ended up working on several.”
Work on the series would be sporadic once Nelson graduated and had to find work, but that didn’t stop him from continuing at any pace he could muster.
“Lo and behold, over a span of 12 or so years, I ended up creating a large series of these paintings,” he said.
On a post-graduation trip to New York City to meet with publishers, Nelson ended up selling three of these images to run in Sports Illustrated. Eventually, someone asked him if he had ever considered making a book of the paintings, and that suggestion stayed with him. Nelson envisioned a book that would tell the story of the Negro League along with his visuals, and began looking for a publisher, with the thought that since he wasn’t an author — and had no experience at writing a book — he would have to find an interested collaborator for the words.
“I learned that it would be very difficult or would take a long time to get an established author to write the book for me in a way that I wanted it to be written,” Nelson said. “That wasn’t appropriate, for me to tell an author what and how to write. After chewing on that, I realized that maybe I could try my own hand at it, so I asked my editor if it would be okay if I gave it a shot and, to my great surprise, she said yes, so I had to figure out how I was going to write it.”
Nelson chose a warm narration of a colloquial bent that would function as a collective voice of the league itself, partially based on the way interviewees addressed the topic when asked about it.
“Everyone spoke in this voice as if it was a collective voice of we,” said he said, “and it made sense to me to tell it that way, as if it were a great story, which it’s a really great inspirational story about a group of players and managers who wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Writing the book took plenty of research, but it never matched the art for difficulty.
“Doing the paintings, that was the most challenging when it came to doing the research,” Nelson said. “There were quite a few books on Negro League history and most of them have the same photographs, so when it came to piecing together the visuals for the book, it was not necessarily easy because it’s like an elaborate puzzle where you’re trying to match up the ages of the players, the jersey numbers, the jerseys they wore, where they played, because a lot of that stuff doesn’t exist anymore. Or it’s in black and white, which is also a challenge. That’s part of the fun, too, making those discoveries.”
Nelson relied on photographs and replicated jerseys and uniforms, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Each painting he did had a component of reconstruction and mystery — each image was like starting from scratch and offered a component of discovery that kept things interesting.
“I think the league itself was something of a discovery for me, but, of course, there are a number of players who I had never heard of,” he said. “Anyone who’s familiar or somewhat familiar with Negro League history has heard of the big players, like Satchel Page and Josh Gibson, but like Satchel said, there were many Satchels in the league, many Joshes. Coming to those discoveries was really interesting. There are batters who are just as powerful and prolific as Josh Gibson, but Josh was the one who got most of the attention for one reason or another — maybe he had an aura around him.”
With the understanding that there were plenty of people out there who still didn’t know much about the league, Nelson crafted the narration to appeal to adults, as well as kids.
“That was my hope,” Nelson said. “I wanted to create something that wasn’t age-specific. The only thing that I really kept in mind was, knowing that younger readers would be reading the book, I made sure not to include any of the really colorful language that the baseball players would use. Other than that, my aim was to make a book that would span all ages.”
The challenge there was to acknowledge some of the more mature aspects of the life in the league — racism, girl chasing, crime — within a context that the honesty wasn’t too vivid for a children’s book.
“As long as it’s mentioned tactfully, it’s kind of like hanging around your elders or uncles or grandfather, and they know that you’re there, so they say something along those lines,” said Nelson. “That was the idea, if it were your grandfather telling you what it was like for him. How interesting would that be if your grandfather played baseball, whether in the Negro leagues or in the major leagues, you can go back and listen to his stories. That’s how I wanted to tell the stories.”
The story of the league ends with the end of the league — sad to be sure, but a victory as well, since the ultimate goal of the league was to pave the way for African Americans to be allowed to play in the major leagues.
“In the interviews I conducted, and the ones I read, most, if not all, of the interviewees who were players knew that was the goal and were happy to see it come to fruition,” Nelson said. “And without them, Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson and players of today, like Barry Bonds, might not have had the opportunity to play or given that opportunity. They stand on their shoulders. It’s a great point of pride for many of the Negro League players that they played a really substantial part in making history.”
There could be a bittersweet quality to the ending, but Nelson doesn’t think there is. It was the end of something people loved — and loved taking part in — but it was a precursor to the fight for civil rights that would come, an opportunity for young African-American men to make their way in the world, to experience the possibilities through the ways other nationalities viewed them and to demonstrate the perseverance required to pave the way to equality.
“What helped to quell a bit of that bitterness was that they lead extraordinary lives,” he sad, “because most young African-American men of the time were not doing something that they loved and getting paid for it and traveling the world and meeting a lot of people and gaining the attention of young and old people alike. I think it was a really great life — they were young and free and having a really great time, and it wasn’t a wasted opportunity.”
Originally published on February 11, 2012 in the North Adams Transcript.