THE PRIDE OF THE GAME

Luminous paintings by Kadir Nelson re-create the power and majesty of the Negro leagues, in a time when some of the game's greats played in undeserved obscurity—but with undiminished passion
March 09, 2008

THE ARTIST findsbeauty even where there seems to be none, and in that way Kadir Nelson and themen of the Negro leagues are soul mates. Negro leagues baseball (1920--47) wasan exquisite flower grown from poisonous soil—the ugly racial attitudes of20th-century America—and nurtured by men who refused to allow the ignorancethat barred them from the major leagues to extinguish their passion for thegame. Nelson, some 60 years later, saw the dignity in that passion and hashonored it with a book of oil paintings, We Are the Ship: The Story of NegroLeague Baseball, depicting Negro leagues stars and game scenes, some of whichgrace these pages. ¬∂ As a new baseball season approaches, there is no bettertime 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 BuckO'Neil's hands, the sinews of Josh Gibson's massive forearms and the curve ofSatchel Paige's long fingers over the stitching of the baseball. Certainly theemotions the paintings evoke could not be more real. Before his death in 2006O'Neil saw the painting on the previous spread, which portrays him as managerof the Kansas City Monarchs, arms folded, one foot on the top step of thedugout. "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."

Perhaps O'Neilfelt a touch of melancholy, just as we do now. It is hard to look at whatNelson—a 33-year-old award-winning painter and illustrator from AtlanticCity—has done without thinking about how much richer these men might have madethe history of the big leagues. Where might the Bunyanesque Gibson rank on thealltime home run list if not for the discrimination that marred his era? WouldJames (Cool Papa) Bell's name be as synonymous with smooth centerfield play asthat of his white contemporary Joe DiMaggio? How many of the faces in thesepaintings would be instantly recognizable today if only they had been allowedon the biggest stage?

Nelson, a studentof baseball history who spent almost eight years on this project, shows us whatwe missed, re-creating life in the Negro leagues—and in the Latin Americanleagues in which some black players spent the winter—with painstaking attentionto detail. He bought replica uniforms and photographed himself in them, thenstudied the photos for the sake of authenticity. "I wanted to see how thefolds of the fabric looked, how the light fell," he said. "You have toget the small things right, or it doesn't work. The real lovers of the game arelooking to see if you have the seams on the baseball or the script on theuniforms exactly right."

He did take someartistic license, partly because so much of what he searched for had goneunrecorded or was not preserved, including photographs of ballparks and somejersey numbers, and partly to satisfy his artist's eye. Though Bell was acenterfielder, for instance, Nelson's painting shows him in front of therightfield wall at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., because theadvertisements on that part of the fence were visually more interesting. Theplayers no doubt would have allowed Nelson such small liberties in return forthe way he captured on canvas not just their athleticism but also theirdignity. "My work is all about healing and giving people a sense of hopeand nobility," he says. "I want to show the strength and integrity ofthe human being and of the human spirit." He found the perfect subjects inthe Negro leagues players, who were so undeterred by the injustice they facedthat they considered it merely the turbulent water on which they sailed."We are the ship," said Negro National League founder Rube Foster, inthe quote from which the book draws its title. "All else, the sea."

Consider theproud, powerful men in these paintings, and you will understand how they keptthe ship on course in such difficult times. You will understand also that theartist and the athletes became partners in this process, creators of a thing ofbeauty that, like the legacy of the Negro leagues, will last forever.

How many of the faces in these paintings would beinstantly recognizable today if only they had been allowed on the biggeststage?

Negro leagues baseball was a flower grown frompoisonous soil—the ugly racial attitudes of 20th-century America.

The artist and the athletes became partners, creatorsof a thing of beauty that, like the legacy of the Negro leagues, will lastforever.

 

ILLUSTRATIONBuck O'Neil (standing, arms crossed) | KANSAS CITY MONARCHS ILLUSTRATIONOscar Charleston | CHICAGO AMERICAN GIANTS
ILLUSTRATIONSmokey Joe Williams | HOMESTEAD GRAYS PHOTOERICK W. RASCO (BOOK COVER) ILLUSTRATIONJackie Robinson | KANSAS CITY MONARCHS ILLUSTRATIONMartin Dihigo | XALAPA (MEXICO) CHILEROS ILLUSTRATIONJosh Gibson | HOMESTEAD GRAYS ILLUSTRATIONJudy Johnson | HILLDALE DAISIES ILLUSTRATIONCool Papa Bell | HOMESTEAD GRAYS ILLUSTRATIONDizzy Dean | ST. LOUIS CARDINALS, Satchel Paige | PITTSBURGH CRAWFORDS ILLUSTRATIONWillard Brown | SANTURCE (PUERTO RICO) CANGREJEROS PHOTO

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