We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Jacket-5• Grade Range: 3rd-Adult
• Diversity related title
• Author and Illustrator Kadir Nelson
• We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
• Publisher: New York, Jump at the Sun
• 88 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-7868-0832-8
• Awards: 2009 Coretta Scott King Author Award~ 2009Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor~2009 Sibert Winner~ 2008 Casey Award.
• Author’s website: https://www.kadirnelson.com/

From 1887 until 1945 an unofficial ‘gentleman’s agreement’ closed major league baseball to African American players. They responded with their own storied Negro League filled with fantastic athletes and fascinating characters. In a conversational style, Kadir Nelson tells the story of this legendary group, illustrating the tales with gorgeous and heroic full-page paintings.

This is one of those books that tells an important story but is so fun and infectious that it draws readers in regardless of their interest in history, civil rights or baseball. The illustrations have so much style, strength and power the reader instantly believes in the greatness of what’s pictured and wants to know more.

Nelson narrates in the first-person persona of an old-timer who was there; the reader feels lucky to be able to draw up a chair and hear the tale. We quickly learn that the kind of baseball the Negro-leaguers played had plenty of flash and drama. After some white umpires called a game, they apologize for their mistakes; they had never seen that style of play. Recognizing the crowd-pleasing appeal they said “if they played like we did in the majors, they’d have to make the parks bigger to seat all the fans.”

Readers learn that it wasn’t just innovative play that the Negro League bequeathed to baseball, it was safety equipment too. The Negro Leagues style of play was so edgy and rough players resorted to wearing a mining helmet when at bat and placing barrel staves in their socks to avoid being slashed by spikes. Night baseball was another Negro League innovation.

Nelson also recounts the impact Jim Crow attitudes had on the players as they traveled through unfriendly areas: unable to find food, lodging or even a place to go to the bathroom. Often they would play multiple games in one day. The stories and statistics leave little doubt that Negro-League baseball and its players were the best show in town; readers feel what a shame it was that more of the world didn’t get to see them play. But eventually the Major League recognized they needed the talent and draw of the best Negro League players.The ninth chapter, or inning, recounts Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League baseball in 1945. And the chapter Extra Innings tells of the withering demise of the Negro Leagues as their best players and their fans went to the majors.

We Are the Ship is exquisitely designed. The copyright and dedication pages have quotations from Negro league greats in various sized pale font so that the reader feels they are overhearing snippets from a great party in the next room. A two-page spread of a ticket to the first Colored World Series folds out into a four-page spread of the two teams in front of a crowd. More than every other page is filled with stunning art that has as much muscular power, and more gravitas, than a Thomas Hart Benton.

Front matter includes three pages of quotes from negro league greats, the eponymous quote by Rube Foster and a foreword by Hank Aaron. Back matter includes ‘Extra Innings,’ which recounts the demise of Negro League ball, which struggled on after integration until 1960. Hall-of-Fame Negro Leaguers and those who have made the Hall of Fame are listed. A thoughtful Author’s Note, acknowledgements, a bibliography, filmography, endnotes, and an index conclude the book.

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