Freedom Tower exhibit pays homage to Negro Leagues

Asking artist Kadir Nelson for his favorite Negro Leagues story is a bit like asking a mother of six to name her favorite child.

The Negro Leagues produced so many legendary figures, men like Josh Gibson, he of the rolled-up sleeves, the Ruthian home runs and the boilermaker biceps; and crafty, ageless hurler Leroy “Satchel” Paige, so tall, skinny, and long-armed it is said that when he turned sideways he disappeared. But a pitching virtuoso nonetheless. And “Cool Papa” Bell, Andy “Pullman” Porter and “Wild Bill” Wright, ballplayers whose nicknames evoke a time of barnstorming by bus and playing in flannel uniforms, often in second-rate ballparks for third-rate pay.

“There are so many stories, and they all revolve around the great characters,” said Nelson, 37.

Those stories will be on display, along with Nelson’s portraits, during the 10-week run of We are the Ship — The Story of Negro League Baseball, an exhibit that opens Thursday at Miami’s Freedom Tower. The exhibit is based on Nelson’s 2008 book of the same name.

Although the Hall of Fame careers of Major Leaguers Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays began in the Negro Leagues, many other black ballplayers deserved the chance at a big-league career but never got it, barred by the “gentlemen’s agreement” among owners that excluded blacks from the majors. Instead, they filled stadiums and scratched out a living for teams like the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs.

Their tales, saved from history’s dustbin in recent years, didn’t just intrigue Nelson, whose work includes the cover art for Michael Jackson’s posthumous album Michael. They’ve been his greatest inspiration.

It took nearly a decade, but Nelson has produced some four-dozen portraits of life in the Negro Leagues, pieces that have found homes in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and in the private collections of actors, professional athletes and musicians.

An epic PBS documentary by Ken Burns, featuring classic, sepia-toned photographs and narration by newsman John Chancellor, whetted his appetite.

“They were shut of out the major leagues, and they decided rather than quit to form their own leagues, and became very successful,” Nelson said. “I really loved looking at those historic photographs. It’s the same game, but it seemed a bit simpler and rougher.

“You could see it on their faces,” he added. “They were very proud and strong and had a lot of integrity. And they had a lot of humor involved as well.”

There isn’t much humor in Nelson’s work, however — his paintings depict a pride and professionalism that drove these athletes.

The name of the show — and Nelson’s book — is a nod to Negro leagues founder Rube Foster, who once famously declared, “We are the ship; all else the sea.”

The 33-piece collection, which winds through the second floor of the Freedom Tower, charts a chronological course through the Negro Leagues’ history, from the late 19th century and on through the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, a move that ironically presaged the death of the Negro Leagues. Once the Mayses, the Aarons and the Larry Dobys were allowed to sign major league contracts, the Negro Leagues lost their reason to exist.

Nelson also pays homage to the Latin players who were likewise excluded from the majors; the show dedicates a wall to the era’s Hispanic stars.

“We thought it would appeal to the community, because it shows a part of the history of sports that some might not know about,” said Wanda Texon, associate director of the art gallery system at Miami Dade College, which operates Freedom Tower.

Nelson, whose pre-production sketches of the film Amistad helped convince Steven Spielberg to take on the project, will be in Miami for the show’s opening, and here through mid-November’s Miami Book Fair International.

His visit couldn’t have worked out better for his mother, Emily Gunter, a South Floridian who is largely responsible for bringing Nelson’s nationwide tour to Miami. Gunter is the program coordinator of Urgent, a non-profit dedicated to the empowerment of urban communities through arts and culture.

Through persistence and determination, Gunter convinced attorney Albert Dotson Jr. and the Florida Marlins to donate the necessary funding to secure the exhibit.

“Every place I’ve ever gone, I’ve shown Kadir’s work,” said Gunter, who has encouraged her son’s art since he mastered a paint-by-numbers project at age 5. “This is the one I’ve been waiting for a long time,”

Nelson will meet with kids involved with Urgent during a private showing, and surely regale them with some of the rich tales that fill his book.

Which leads back to the original question: What’s his favorite?

Not surprisingly, it involves Paige, the right-handed fireballer who spent decades dominating the Negro Leagues before finally getting his shot in the majors.

But back when Paige was in his prime, his catcher was Roosevelt “Chappy” Gray. They were playing a game in Enid, Okla., and the sun had gone down, making Paige’s already blinding pitches even harder to see in the late innings.

Gray, tired of having Paige’s fastballs hurt his hands and ready to call it quits, told his pitcher to just wind up, act as though he was pitching, but not actually throw the ball. Instead, Gray would just hit his glove like he caught it. Paige did as he was asked — and it worked. The umpire called strike three.

Infuriated, the batter tossed his bat down and shouted, “Come on, ump. That last one sounded a little bit low.”

 

Source: Miami Herald