Monday, May 6, 2013

Negro League Baseball's Unsung Heroes

We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League BaseballWe are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the untold story of the Negro League, which for thirty years before integration not only drew bigger crowds than the all-white major league baseball teams but also had stars every bit as gifted as Babe Ruth (possibly more gifted, but we'll never know for sure).

Kadir Nelson tells the story with an Everyman narrator and through his vivid paintings. Nelson explains in the Author's Note: "I chose to present the voice of the narrator as a collective voice, the voice of every player, the voice of we. Under the leadership of Rube Foster, who declared the leagues' independence from major league baseball by saying, 'We are the ship; all else the sea,' the owners and players formed and sustained a successful league, demonstrating the power of the collective."

This quote also explains the terrible name of the book, which certainly doesn't scream "Baseball" at potential readers and seems to guarantee that interested kids won't find it unless a parent or teacher hands it to them. As an object the book is also awkwardly large and square to accommodate the illustrations. Sadly, there are no period photographs, just Nelson's paintings. Don't get me wrong - the paintings are lovely, but based on those alone I doubt I would recognize the major Negro League stars in real life photos. The illustrations are simply not nuanced enough, and after looking up some of the stars I don't think Nelson got the resemblances very well.

The Negro League played baseball that was swift, thrilling, and "tricky" according to Cool Papa Bell, a legendary outfielder. The descriptions of the rough-and-tumble League are enough to make you wish for a little of that old spirit and excitement in modern baseball. The narrative style conveys this excitement well, making the story zip along and feel authentic. Even those who know little about baseball will find it a quick and fascinating read, and may be inspired to pick up some of the books listed in the bibliography to learn more about the larger-than-life personalities of the Negro League's best players. (Or to watch the film 42, about Jackie Robinson.)

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