Nelson, Kadir. 2008. We are the ship: The story of Negro League Baseball. New York: Jump at the Sun.
If you have ever watched Ken Burns' landmark documentary, Baseball, then you will have heard of the Negro Leagues. In fact, it was Burns' documentary that inspired author and artist, Kadir Nelson, to create We are the Ship, to document the rise and fall of America's all-black baseball league.
The story is told, appropriately, not in chapters, but in "innings," beginning with the exclusion of blacks from major league baseball and ending with the bittersweet success of Jackie Robinson - bittersweet because while it opened baseball to other black players, it also signaled the death knell of the Negro Leagues.
The Negro League teams had more than just colorful baseball players, they had a colorful style of play - faster, looser and more inventive than that of MLB.
"There was a catcher, Chappy Gray, who used to catch Satchel when he was in his prime. One time they were playing in Enid, Oklahoma. By the time the game got up into late innings, it started to get kinda dark. So Chappy told Satchel, 'Hey, Satchel, you got two strikes on this hitter. Man, you throwin' the ball so hard, I can't see it too well and I don't want to break my finger. I'll tell you what you do. You wind up like you are going to throw the ball and I'll hit my fist in my mitt, make it sound like it's the ball. Man, nobody'll know the difference. ... Satchel said, 'Okay, I'll do that.' So he went back out there and he wound up and came down with that long stride, big follow-through. Chappy hit his fist in his mitt, and the umpire yelled, 'Strike three!' That hitter was so mad, he threw his bat down. He yelled at the umpire, 'You blind, Tom?! Anybody who could see knows that ball was high and outside!'"
The chapters, or "innings" are each compelling parts of the whole game, seamlessly weaving history, baseball and personalities. Although segregation is a great part of the Negro League story, We are the Ship is an uplifting book, highlighting a love of baseball and a can-do spirit.
Nelson's paintings are beautiful and lifelike depictions of a bygone era and some of baseball's greatest players. There is a double-spread foldout depicting the first Colored World Series in 1924.
The book concludes with Negro Leaguers Who Made it to the Major Leagues (count Hank Aaron among these!), Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (including Satchel Paige and Smokey Joe Williams), an Author's Note, Acknowledgments, Bibliography, Filmography, Endnotes and Index.
My only complaint with this book was the author's stated choice to write the story in the collective "we" voice. It helps to place the reader firmly inside the story, however, as a history buff and baseball fan, I spent the entire book wondering "who" was speaking. Only in the Author's Note did I discover that, although a true story, the "voice" is a fictional "we." This minor complaint will probably go unnoticed by most readers however, and certainly does not detract from the story.
This picture book for older readers is highly recommended. Hopefully, we'll see it on some of the winning book award lists next month!