'We Are the Ship' exhibit open in KC

'We Are the Ship' exhibit open in KC

In one painting, Jackie Robinson slides violently across home plate, beating the relay throw and spraying dirt into the air as the umpire extends his arms, "Safe!" In another, Willie Foster, clad in a black suit, is flanked by young fans in the streets of Pittsburgh, who carry his uniform to the stadium in hopes of acquiring free admission to the game.

Kadir Nelson set out to present the history of the Negro Leagues in an "epic way." After nearly eight years of tedious work, including interviewing former players, reading their stories and researching their game, Nelson's "We Are the Ship" exhibit is on display at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The 26-painting collection was used to illustrate Nelson's new book of the same name.

The critically lauded collection will be on display through April 13. Admission is free to the public.

"I wanted to show images that had never been seen before," Nelson said. "I could have very easily copied old photos. That doesn't interest me as an artist or creative person. I wanted to put the audience in the shoes of members of the Negro Leagues. I wanted to give the idea of what it would have been like to be on deck batting behind Josh Gibson, or on the bus riding to the game, or in Puerto Rico with fans cheering Willard Brown after a game."

To create unique images, Nelson donned replica jerseys, hit the timer on his camera, and posed as each player in the book.

"I just wanted to make it look more convincing, because you can't make that up," Nelson said.

The art brings humanity to the men who made up the league. The exhibit is equal parts action and emotion. Game sequences include an imposing Gibson staring down Satchel Paige from the on-deck circle, but Nelson also includes single portraits such as Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, sitting over a table of money with a cigar in his mouth and glass of scotch within reach, counting his daily take.

"I tell people this all the time: this isn't sports art," said Bob Kendrick, NLBM director of marketing. "What Kadir has a great ability to do is bring out the spirits of athletes -- the pride, the love, the power of the human spirit. That's what the Negro Leagues was all about."

John Moores, owner of the San Diego Padres, is an avid fan of Nelson's who owns several of the artist's pieces and also donated four paintings permanently to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Moores wrote an e-mail that was read during the introduction of the collection at the museum in which he describes escorting Buck O'Neil to his office at Petco Park several years ago. On the way, the pair passed several of Nelson's paintings, including Moores' favorite: O'Neil as a manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, watching his team from the dugout.

"Buck seemed to step back in time when he saw Kadir's extraordinary images of his former teammates and friends," Moores wrote. "It was a special moment for me and, I think, for Buck."

Nelson said he fell in love with the Negro Leagues through conversations with O'Neil after the artist was commissioned to do a painting of the league in 1995. That interest sparked the idea of writing and illustrating a book that would traverse the history of the league. Nelson began work on the project in 2000.

O'Neil, in fact, was the inspiration for the literary voice Nelson used in the book.

"I wanted it to be told in the voice of someone like Buck O'Neil, [who] wasn't bitter about not being able to play in the Major Leagues," Nelson said. "A lot of these players had truly wonderful lives. They got to travel the world and they were adored. They made good money doing something they would have done for free -- playing baseball."

The book and exhibit's name, "We Are the Ship," came from the declaration of Negro Leagues founder Andrew "Rube" Foster, who proclaimed "We are the ship; all else the sea," in 1920 when introducing the new league in Kansas City.

Eighty-eight years later, Nelson's collection celebrates the 40-year history of the league in the same town in which it was born.

"For me, what is so impressive about the history of the Negro Leagues is the story," Nelson said. "I think it's a great story of perseverance and determination and excellence through adversity. Here you have a group of men that had to confront discrimination. Their love of baseball allowed them to rise above it. It is a great story of never compromising on your dreams and making them come true on your own terms. That is a great lesson for all of us; young and old."

Thor Nystrom is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.