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."
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 turbulent water on which they sailed.
"We are the ship," said Negro National League founder Rube Foster, in
the quote from which the book draws its title. "All else, the sea."
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.