We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, June 2011 | Go to article overview

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


There are many tales in the history of baseball. Some, even about the founding of baseball itself. It's widely believed that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y., in the mid 1800s.

According to Kadir Nelson, author and illustrator of We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Hyperion, 2008), however, "That is just another tall tale, 'cause no one really knows for sure."

But one thing is certain: Soon after that, baseball was played just about everywhere in this country, by all sorts of people, including African Americans. Ultimately, teams were organized and then they became professional.

The origins of Negro League baseball can be traced as far back as the post-Civil War period, all the way to 1947, when the great Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and helped propel the team to a National League pennant. In this first year of major league baseball, he also earned the honor of National League Rookie of the Year.

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From the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century, professional baseball was segregated, forcing African Americans to form their own teams and leagues. In the late 1900s there were more than 200 black independent teams throughout the country.

By the 1920s, black baseball had become the most popular entertainment for urban African Americans. The Negro National League was formed in 1920 with eight teams from the Midwest, followed by the formation of the Negro Southern League and the Eastern Colored League.

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The history of Negro League Baseball, along with painted illustrations, entitled We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, with text and paintings by Kadir Nelson, was published in 2008. Nelson spent seven years researching, writing and creating the art to document the long and involved history of Negro League Baseball.

He interviewed former players, traveled to museums, studied old photographs, and collected baseball memorabilia, uniforms and sports equipment to put himself into the shoes of a former Negro League player, and to re-create an authentic depiction of life in the Negro Leagues. The author dedicated this and, by extension, the exhibition, to the preservation of the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues.

The book and the exhibition present the history of the Negro Leagues, a story of gifted athletes and determined owners; of racial discrimination and international sportsmanship; of fortunes won and lost; of triumphs and defeats on and off the field.

It is also a mirror of the social and political history of black America in the first half of the 20th century. But most of all, according to Nelson, "...the story of the Negro Leagues is about hundreds of unsung heroes who overcame segregation, hatred, terrible conditions, and low pay to do the one thing they loved more than anything else in the world: play ball. …

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