Stepping up to the plate

David Davis is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine.

“We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball” is, ostensibly, a children’s book. But author-illustrator Kadir Nelson’s text is so engrossing -- and his oil paintings so evocative -- that the rubric is inadequate. Nelson’s soulful work about this long-neglected brand of our national pastime deserves -- nay, demands -- an all-ages audience.

The title comes from a quote by Negro Leagues founder Rube Foster: “We are the ship; all else the sea.” As it suggests, the Negro Leagues were a self-sufficient, independent enterprise where only the ball was white. Segregated baseball, which began in the 1880s, would endure until the Brooklyn Dodgers’ signing of Jackie Robinson in 1945 (although remnants of the Negro Leagues lasted through 1960).

The book’s narrator is an “everyplayer” who sounds an awful lot like Buck O'Neil, the Kansas City Monarchs first baseman whose storytelling skills were the highlight of Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary. This device allows Nelson to chronicle the exploits of the stars (Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell) and the lesser-known players (Chet Brewer, Martin Dihigo, Turkey Stearnes) in a folksy, tell-it-like-it-was manner.


Of Ray Dandridge, the Hall of Fame third baseman, Nelson writes: “We called him ‘Squatty’ because he was so bowlegged. You could drive a train through his legs, but not a baseball.”

Beyond celebrating the players’ athletic skills and their dignity in the face of discrimination, Nelson doesn’t shy away from the ugly complexities of segregation. When teams barnstormed through the South, he writes, “We would have to travel several hundred miles without stopping because we couldn’t find a place where we could eat along the way. It’s a hurtful thing when you’re starving and have a pocket full of money but can’t find a place to eat because they ‘don’t serve Negroes.’ ”

Nelson’s artistry previously earned him Caldecott Honors (for “Henry’s Freedom Box” and “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom”). In “We Are the Ship,” his luminous portraits and stadium tableaux form the book’s core. These lush, detailed renderings capture the pride -- and the pain -- that the Negro Leaguers experienced and, in so doing, transform them into real-life heroes.

San Diego-based Nelson has written that he spent eight years on this project. His passion and dedication can be found on every page of this creative home run.