Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Old Ball Game

Here are a couple of good book ideas for any baseball fan.

First I’ll discuss a book that is about the sport of baseball and men with the God-given talent to play it well, while dealing with the human-made obstacle of segregation.
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball is a beautiful book brimming with luscious paintings by Kadir Nelson. Most of the paintings are static portraits of Negro League greats like John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Oscar Charleston, Wilber “Bullet” Rogan and Josh Gibson. What I especially love are the scenes Nelson captured with his brush: The Monarch’s dug out, The Chicago American Giants disembarking from the train, Jackie Robinson stealing home plate, some of the Newark Eagles singing five part harmony on the team bus, a double page spread of Josh Gibson watching Satchel Paige pitching to Buck Leonard.

The forward is written by none other than Hank Aaron. The text is written by the artist himself in the anonymous voice of a Negro League player and covers the history of the league from the 1920’s to 1947 in 10 chapters (labeled as nine innings with one extra inning). You get a feeling for the
personality and special talents of the players and managers. It is somewhat rambling at times, but what really struck me (I haven’t followed baseball since the Cincinnati Reds’ “Big Red Machine” days in the 70’s) was the ominous presence of segregation. It seems so weird that a team bus would sometimes drive through town after town without finding a restaurant that would serve blacks. “No shirt, no shoes, no service” makes sense but to not serve someone who has money a pork tenderloin sandwich with fries because of their skin color seems as culturally odd to me as Chinese women binding their feet or polygamy or scalp collecting, or I don’t know, cannibalism or something. Just odd.

For the sake of history I’ll share a family tale as it relates to segregation. My mother was born in 1928 in a small southern Indiana town. She told me about the segregated schools. Her home on North Broadway was near the black only Broadway School but she went to school a couple of blocks in the other direction on South Broadway. Her family employed a black cook named Lucy. Sometimes Lucy would take my Mom to a picture show (most probably a Shirley Temple movie). In the segregated theatre they would have to sit in the balcony which my Mom thought was pretty neat, but I wonder how that felt to dear, sweet Lucy? By the way, many years later, when Mom and Dad would go out on a Saturday night, Lucy would watch us (and cook what seemed like a feast after my cooking-challenged mother’s meals). We LOVED Lucy. She had a deep, pleasant laugh. We played old maid and a multitude of other games. We serenaded her with her favorite songs. She read us
The Golden Book of 365 Stories. I vividly remember one New Year’s Eve when she filled the family room with colorful balloons and we stomped on them at midnight. Once she took us to see Biscuit Eater at the same theatre she had taken my mother years before. And we all sat together on the main floor. That movie was a tearjerker.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball winds down, as did the Negro League, with Jackie Robinson’s historic move to the majors. This book opened my eyes to the burden placed on Robinson. For anyone with an interest in baseball or segregation, this is an exceptional book.

Ages 9-12

Activity: Click here for a coloring page of Jackie Robinson and here is a Negro League Baseball word search puzzle.

The other book, Moe Berg: The Spy Behind Home Plate was also interesting. I enjoyed getting to know Moe, someone I am ashamed to say, I had never heard of. He was the child of emigrant Ukrainian Jews who grew up pitching for his Newark, New Jersey school team while excelling in his classes. He was one of only a handful of Jews to attend Princeton at that time where his special talents were baseball and languages, his major. Upon graduation he signed on with the Brooklyn Robins (later called the Brooklyn Dodgers). He eventually attained a law degree and practiced law while playing ball in the Major Leagues in the spring and summer. How impressive is that!? When World War II was just heating up, Moe’s skill with languages (he could speak eight fluently) and his fame as a ballplayer made it handy for him to travel through baseball loving countries like Japan and those in Latin America and collect useful information for the U.S.A. Before all was said and done he was living a bit of a James Bond lifestyle, tracking down German scientists in a race to the atom bomb. This is definitely a life story worth reading!

Ages 9-12


  1. The very interesting version for adults is The Catcher Was a Spy. Berg was sent to meet with Heisenberg to determine whether Heisenberg knew enough to build an atomic bomb. If, in Berg's opinion, Heisenberg could do it, Berg was to kill him on the spot.

    Heisenberg lived. But, they trusted that decision to the catcher from the Brooklyn Dodgers?

    Great story.

    Nice to know about this book, too. Thanks.

  2. Replying to your post on my informational book review of "We Are The Ship."
    Thank you for the link to the Jackie Robinson coloring page - great print-out!
    Noreen T.