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Illustrated Book Chronicles Negro League Pioneers

Jan 29, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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The vivid, detailed and realistic pictures in a new book for children transport readers to the past and the world of baseball's Negro Leagues.

Award-winning artist Kadir Nelson wrote and illustrated the book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, which is his first as an author.

The project took Nelson nearly eight years to complete.

"It started off as a few paintings and then it grew into more than 40 paintings," Nelson tells Michele Norris.

Each painting required a tremendous amount of research. Nelson read a number of books about the Negro Leagues and interviewed former players, including Walt McCoy, who lives in San Diego, as does Nelson.

"It helps a lot to hear the history directly from someone who lived it, rather than reading it in a textbook," Nelson says.

"I felt that if I [wrote the book] in that way — like a grandfather telling his story to his grandchildren — it would make the history all the more real," he says.

Nelson describes how the men and women who played in the Negro Leagues — faced with discrimination and a ban against their playing in the Major Leagues — created their own "grand stage" to showcase their talents.

It was characterized by rough-and-tumble play; Nelson notes that Negro League players threw pitches that were banned in the Major Leagues and, as a result, learned how to hit anything.

"By the time integration came, when Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier in 1947, African-American ballplayers were prepared to hit anything and to play at that high level of play," Nelson says.

The title of the book comes from a quote from the founder of the Negro Leagues, Rube Foster: "We are the ship, all else the sea."

Nelson says it was a "declaration of independence" of the Negro Leagues from the Major Leagues — and a fitting title for his book.

"This story is presented in the first-person plural. We played baseball. This is how we lived, and this is what we did to enable African Americans and people of color to follow in our footsteps."

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Read an excerpt from the book about life in the Negro Leagues.

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