"We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball" is, ostensibly, a children's book. But author-illustrator Kadir Nelson's text is so engrossing -- and his oil paintings so evocative -- that the rubric is inadequate. Nelson's soulful work about this long-neglected brand of our national pastime deserves -- nay, demands -- an all-ages audience.
The title comes from a quote by Negro Leagues founder Rube Foster: "We are the ship; all else the sea." As it suggests, the Negro Leagues were a self-sufficient, independent enterprise where only the ball was white. Segregated baseball, which began in the 1880s, would endure until the Brooklyn Dodgers' signing of Jackie Robinson in 1945 (although remnants of the Negro Leagues lasted through 1960).
The book's narrator is an "everyplayer" who sounds an awful lot like Buck O'Neil, the Kansas City Monarchs first baseman whose storytelling skills were the highlight of Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. This device allows Nelson to chronicle the exploits of the stars (Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell) and the lesser-known players (Chet Brewer, Martin Dihigo, Turkey Stearnes) in a folksy, tell-it-like-it-was manner.
Of Ray Dandridge, the Hall of Fame third baseman, Nelson writes: "We called him 'Squatty' because he was so bowlegged. You could drive a train through his legs, but not a baseball."