Kadir Nelson has illustrated 23 books, winning awards for his warm portrayals of African-Americans. But he had never written the stories of those people -- until "We Are the Ship."
The 2008 children's book and 50 of the paintings and sketches that illustrate it are the heart of "The Story of Negro League Baseball: We Are the Ship," an exhibition that runs through Aug. 26 at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, part of the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
Some illustrations are based upon period photographs, such as team pictures of the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, both top teams in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and '40s. Notable for the future Hall of Famers in them, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard, the black-and-white photos gain both power and intimacy when rendered in full color.
In the center of the second row of the Crawfords' team picture, based upon a photo from March 1932, Mr. Paige stands tall and confident next to Mr. Gibson, whose brow is furrowed. He is the only player not wearing a jersey because an injury had kept him out of spring training that year.
Was he nervous about the upcoming season? Impatient to get back behind the plate? His features are the same as those of the life-sized figure of the famous catcher that was unveiled last week as part of the exhibition. But Mr. Nelson's version has more of Mr. Gibson's larger-than-life personality.
That's also true of his painting of Mr. Gibson for the cover of the book. In the History Center's fourth-floor gallery, Mr. Gibson meets the eyes of viewers, fists tightly gripping his bat like the legendary John Henry and his sledgehammer. The bicep that gleams beneath a rolled-up sleeve is nearly as big as his head. This is a baseball god, surrounded by blue heavens. No photograph ever captured him like this.
Mr. Nelson said he was inspired to write and illustrate the book, a seven-year project, after seeing Buck O'Neil in Ken Burns' documentary "Baseball."
"He was very charming and very warm, and he told the story with such zeal. I fell in love with Buck," he said in a phone interview from his studio in Los Angeles.
He spoke with O'Neil several times and even joined him to watch a ballgame in San Diego, but the artist lived too far from the Monarchs first baseman's home in Kansas City, where he was honorary board chairman of the Negro League Baseball Museum until he died in October 2006. Instead, Mr. Nelson based much of his book's text on the sharp memory of Walt McCoy, 89, of San Diego, who played for the Chicago American Giants in the mid-'40s. Mr. McCoy's accounts ignited his passion to tell this "very romantic, very American story," Mr. Nelson said.
"The story of baseball runs parallel to the story of America. I thought it was a really great story, of people creating something from nothing out of sheer will and out of love for their trade," he said.
Rube Foster was a central figure of the story and is prominent in the book and exhibition. Starting as one of the great pitchers of the early 1900s, he managed the Chicago American Giants and founded the Negro National League. In Mr. Nelson's paintings, he appears alone, with his players at a railroad station and in the center of a panoramic photo of the first Negro League World Series in October 1924.
Mr. Foster's quote -- "We are the ship, all else the sea." -- became the name of the book and the traveling exhibition, which has previously been in Kansas City, Miami and Fort Wayne, Ind. He claimed that his league, the most successful of any black baseball league, was an economic and emotional bulwark at a time when great ballplayers were barred from the Major Leagues only because of the color of their skin.
Team owners are also given their due in the book and exhibition. Gus Greenlee, who turned the Pittsburgh Crawfords from a top amateur team into one of the greatest lineups in baseball history, is shown counting the proceeds of his illegal numbers racket. Mr. Nelson admired Mr. Greenlee even though he portrays him "in the midst of his vice."
"He stood out for the way he funded his baseball team, for starting the Negro League all-star game and for building a stadium (Greenlee Field). Who doesn't want to learn a little of the vice?"
Newark Eagles owners Effa and Abe Manley are portrayed in a less serious frame of mind, listening as their players sing together to pass the time on the team bus. It's the most joyful image in the book and exhibition.
"One of the great parts of this story was that they enjoyed the journey. This was not just a means to integrating baseball," Mr. Nelson said.
"I admired their independent spirit and their determination. They were young and free and were able to do what they love for a living. They found a way. I think that is a really great story."
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978.