Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Review: We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Here in Pittsburgh, there are fewer signs of spring that are welcomed with more pleasure and excitement than the beginning of baseball season. If you aren't able to make it out to PNC park for a game, then we have the book for you -- We Are The Ship is a evocative, fascinating homage to a too-often overlooked part of baseball history that'll make anyone wanna break out the bats and gloves.

Kadir Nelson made an interesting choice for this book -- rather than using the standard "disembodied voice" found in most non-fiction, he chose to write it from the perspective of an "Everyplayer," in order to capture the essence of the independent spirit of the Leagues. "When there was no way, they made a way," Nelson writes in an author's note.

This decision gives the book a folksy, intimate feel, as if you're sitting on the back porch with an old ballplayer, listening to his best stories about the Good Old Days. Here's a sample

When Satchel [Paige] pitched, he raised his big foot up high, let it come
down, and then whipped the ball by you. Satchel was nothing but
fastball. Even his slow stuff was fast. We knew what was coming, but
we still couldn't hit it. The ball would be moving so fast it looked like
a little white pill by the time it got to the plate. And it would jump
just a little bit before it got to you, just enough to make you miss it.

Nelson -- who spent eight years researching the Leagues for this book -- has an intuitive sense for details about history that fully flesh out the time period (roughly the 20s through the 40s) for young readers. The life of the ballplayers is vividly rendered -- from the sweet success of playing for a packed stadium in the East-West classic, to the gritty reality of being bussed nonstop from one game to another. Nelson also doesn't flinch at describing the challenges and indignities these players had to endure, or the sometimes seedy connections that owners and managers kept (many teams were covers for a "numbers racket") but the overall focus is on the positive. Best of all, the personalities and physical prowess of the League's most famous players (Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Jackie Robinson) are cunningly described. There's something for any kind of baseball fan here, whether an occasional observer or bonafide ballpark nut.

And the paintings! Let's not forget about the other half of what makes this book significant -- Nelson has created a plethora of lavish oil paintings that grant this book near-masterpiece status. Nelson renders the players (and a few managers and umpires) powerfully, with large, expressive hands and stern, serious faces. Bold, bright primary colors wrap around the figures -- they inhabit a baseball fantasy-land, where the skies are always blue, the sun always shining.

As a bonus for Pittsburghers, I'll have you know that there are full portraits of both the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords -- although, I will say that my personal favorite is a picture of Willie Foster surrounded by a group of kids in the Hill District, circa 1932.

With its large, coffee-table-sized printing and excellent book design, We Are The Ship is a perfect read not just for baseball fans, but for anyone interested in Pittsburgh history or perhaps looking for a great Father's Day gift. This one's a hit out of the park!

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