MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
I'm Robert Siegel. And this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NORRIS: Children's books are meant to tickle the imagination. And through words and illustrations, help transport the reader to another place. Well, a book arrived in my office recently with illustrations that were so vivid, so detailed, so realistic, that even though I was sitting at my desk, I actually felt like I was up in the bleachers, sitting under a cloudless sky, watching ballplayers down in the field. Baseball players. Negro Leagues baseball players. The book is called "We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro Leagues Baseball." It was illustrated by the award-winning artist, Kadir Nelson.
And it's Nelson's debut as an author. Nelson joins me now to talk about his book, a book that I understand was eight years in the making?
KADIR NELSON: Just about. About seven and a half. A little over seven and a half years.
NORRIS: Why so long?
NELSON: It started off as a few paintings and it grew into over 40 paintings and - but each painting, there's a tremendous amount of research to do, just to make sure that everything is accurate.
NORRIS: How do you do the research for your paintings?
NELSON: In the beginning, I read a number of books on the Negro Leagues. I also interviewed a number of former Negro Leagues players specifically a man by the name of Walt McCoy who lives in San Diego, where I do. And it helps a lot to hear the history directly from someone who've lived it rather than reading it in a text book.
NORRIS: You know, a lot of the players have very stern expressions. They look - not necessarily mean, but they're all about business.
NELSON: Yeah. Here, you have a group of men and women who were confronted with discrimination by way of a ban from Major League Baseball. And rather than give up, this group of individuals decided to create their own grand stage by which they could showcase their talents. And that grand stage became the Negro Baseball Leagues.
NORRIS: And it was a league without rules. They played rough ball.
NELSON: They had a number of rules, but they really found ways around them. Base runs would slide into base with their cleats and spike showing. They threw all types of pitches that were banned in the major leagues. But - I mean, you know, as a result of that, they learned how to hit everything. So 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.
NORRIS: Now, I'm looking for a passage, but chapters are actually called innings. And there is an inning where you described - it's the third inning - and you described life in the Negro Leagues. And I was hoping that you could read a stretch of this for us.
(Reading) It was a rough life. Ride, ride, ride and ride. Hilton Smith, pitcher. We played in a rough league. We had a number of really unsavory characters like Charleston or Judd Wilson to contend with as well as pitchers who didn't have a problem throwing at us. But that was something we had accepted as part of the game. I think what made our time a bit harder than most is when we had to deal with an addition to that. White fans who would call us names and throw stuff at us on the field. And we couldn't say a word. In some places we traveled to, we couldn't get a glass of water to drink even if we had money to pay for it. And back then, water was free.
We did an awful lot of traveling, mostly in buses. They were nice buses to begin with, but they weren't the kind that were made for riding every day. We ran those poor busses ragged. Many a time, we'd ride all day and night and arrive just in time to play a game. Then we get back on that hot bus and travel to the next town for another game, often without even being able to take a bath. And I got to say, that cramped bus would get pretty ripe on some of those summer nights after a double hitter. Phew. This was all season long. All that traveling would wear on you.
NORRIS: There's a music in your voice when you read that passage, that you don't necessarily hear in your speaking voice. Who is that man who's telling the story?
NELSON: This man is the grandfather of all of us. But I have to say that when I was writing this manuscript, I was trying to talk in the voice of someone like Walt McCoy, who was my official consultant. But mostly in the voice of Buck O'Neill, who was a former player and manager in the Negro Leagues. And he became the first African American coach in the major leagues. I didn't really consider myself a writer. But as I continue to work, I figured, you know, I think I can do this, I'll give it a shot, and it worked out.
NORRIS: I want to ask you about some of the pictures in the book. And I want to begin with the picture that is on page 27. It's Willie Foster and young fans, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1932. He's standing and he's so tall and powerful, he looks almost like a statue. Tell me about this picture.
NELSON: Well, this painting was commissioned by the Negro Leagues' baseball museum as part of their Shades of Greatness Exhibit. So you see Willie Foster standing, he's bracing himself on the bat with one hand in his pocket. He's very well dressed. He's surrounded by four children who are carrying his uniform role, his cleats and his glove. Back then, if a kid want us to get free admission to a ball game, they would carry the player's belongings. And if you look behind them, then you'll see the environment.
They are standing on Wiley Avenue in Pittsburgh during the Depression, and you have streetwise guys. And everyone's attention is on this group, specifically the African-American player. He dominate the position. The perspective is very low. You're looking up at him as if you were a child revering him. That's really what I aim to share in this image.
NORRIS: Kadir, how long does it take you to finish one of your paintings?
NELSON: Well, that is a secret.
NORRIS: Oh, you can't tell me?
NELSON: I'm just kidding.
NORRIS: Oh, okay.
NELSON: No, I'm just kidding.
NORRIS: Now, you're pulling my leg.
NELSON: I'm pulling your leg. It really - it varies from - some of them are very simple, and it take maybe a week. Some may take three months. It really depends what it is. Many of these paintings in the book are rather large paintings. Six feet wide, one is about eight feet wide. Many of them are about three feet by three feet.
NORRIS: That title, where does that come from?
NELSON: The title "We Are The Ship" comes from a quote by the founder of the Negro Leagues, Rube Foster. The full quote is, "We are the ship, all else the sea." And it was, in essence, the declaration of independence of the Negro Leagues from the Major Leagues since they were banned from playing in the Majors. The players and owners decided to create their own grand stage to showcase their talents - because I felt that it was appropriate to title this book "We Are The Ship" because this story is presented in the first person plural. We play baseball. This is how we lived. And this is what we did to enable African-Americans and people of colors to follow in our footsteps.
NORRIS: Kadir Nelson, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best to you. Thanks so much.
NELSON: Thank you for having me.
NORRIS: Kadir Nelson is the author and illustrator of "We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball." And you can see that fabulous painting of "Willie Foster and His Young Fans" at npr.org. There, you can also read more about life in the Negro Leagues.