Ever since I read Moses and Henry's Freedom Box, I've been excited about Kadir Nelson's artwork. And ever since I attended the SCBWI conference in LA, I've been looking forward to getting my hands on Kadir Nelson's first solo book project, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, ("words and paintings by Kadir Nelson"). The book takes its title from the motto of the Negro National League, taken from a quote from Rube Foster, the League's founder: "We are the ship; all else the sea." About ten days ago, I found the book in my local bookstore. And now that I've read it, I want to shout about it.
From the cover art to the rich brown endpapers to the forward by Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to Nelson's folksy narration of the text to the glorious paintings inside the book (including one amazing double fold-out spread showing the complete lineup for the first Colored World Series), to the author's note to the bibliography to the index, this book is a gem.
Nelson organized the book into ten chapters (nine innings, plus another chapter called "extra innings"). The only thing this book is lacking is (and I hate to be picky, but here it is): a Table of Contents. Just so you get an idea how the book is organized and what the scope is, here's what the annotated Table of Contents would look like:
Foreword by Hank Aaron
p. 1 1st inning: Beginnings Tells of the start of baseball and of the participation of African Americans
p. 17 2nd inning: A Different Brand of Baseball: Negro League Game Play Explains how Negro League play differed from the white leagues with more showmanship and speed, and that stats weren't always kept (and/or weren't always accurate)
p. 23 3rd inning: Life in the Negro Leagues Talks about the traveling conditions, both on the road and off, including discussion of segregation and field conditions
p. 31 4th inning: Racket Ball: Negro League Owners The effect of the depression on baseball and how it was funded (sometimes not quite on the right side of the law), and the development of night games
p. 41 5th inning: The Greatest Baseball Players in the World: Negro League All-Stars Stories about some of the greatest Negro League players, going well beyond household names like Satchel Paige
p. 53 6th inning: Latin America: Baseball in Paradise A discussion of the many Negro League players from Latin America, and of the Negro League tours in Latin America
p. 57 7th inning: Good Exhibition: The Negro Leagues vs. the White Leagues Barnstorming, playing against the House of David, and more
p. 63 8th inning: Wartime Heroes: World War II and the Negro League All-Star Game Some information about African Americans in the service and the upswing of the Negro League All-Star game and the East-West game and how it affected integration.
p. 69 9th inning: Then Came Jackie Robinson Jackie Robinson's decision to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers
p. 77 Extra innings: The End of the Negro Leagues The gradual re-integration of minority players into the major leagues and how it decimated the Negro League.
p. 79 Negro Leaguers Who Made it to the Major Leagues A list of names
p. 79 Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame A list of names
p. 80 Author's Note How Kadir Nelson got interested in the topic, did his research, created the art, and wrote the book, with a bit of inspiration to boot.
p. 81 Acknowledgements
p. 82 Bibliography & Filmography
p. 83 Endnotes
p. 86 Index
This book is a must-have for (1) all libraries, (2) all baseball fans, (3) all Kadir Nelson fans. That's a lot of categories, but it's true.
We Are The Ship explains what the Negro Leagues were, and what it felt like to be a part of them, including being the brunt of name-calling and being subjected to the thousand cuts of segregation (not all of them being small cuts, by the way). The narrator's matter-of-fact tone and folksy stories is a pleasant companion throughout the text. He tells how the business of the leagues was conducted is examined. He talks about the heroes of the league (many of them in the 5th inning, which features breathtaking pictures). Throughout, the narrator's voice sounds very much like an old Negro League player talking about people he actually knew, good points, bad points, and all.
If you'd like a further look inside the book, Kadir Nelson offers one on his site (it's where I took these images from). But if you're a librarian or a baseball fan or someone who, like me, has a bit of a crush on Kadir Nelson, then you need to BUY THIS BOOK. Now. Before it wins awards next year. Because it's going to win them.