Spring Training is underway and pitchers and catchers in both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues reported last week, with position players reporting this week. And for many, this winter’s fiercely frigid weather has made us anxious for the baseball season to officially begin as that first pitch is a definite sign that spring is in the air! So in honor of all things baseball, together with recognition of Black History month, this review looks at a few titles that explore baseball before and during the Civil Rights movement and the efforts to break the color barrier on the baseball diamond.
I love books about baseball, well, because I love baseball. It is a quintessentially American sport and its history reflects the challenges we have faced as a culture (and those we continue to face in this age of desperate measures to be the very best). My classroom library has always contained a bursting bin with books about every aspect of baseball, including one on the physics of baseball.
My favorite books in the baseball bin are the picture books — which capture the beauty and movement of a sport that is demanding, exacting, front-loaded with failure, torturous (extra-inning games), but always (almost) unpredictable, with great potential for dramatic action. Three of my favorites are laden with pictures, paintings, and photographs which can be enjoyed by baseball fans of all ages and can be meaningfully incorporated into a K-12 ELA and Social Science curriculum. They can be used alone or together.
We are the Ship (The Story of Negro League Baseball), by Kadir Nelson
Kadir Nelson’s breathtaking narrative about the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues is packed with punch. Hank Aaron penned the foreword and the story is told from the point of view of an unnamed “Everyman” who provides a “first-hand” chronicle of life as a black player beginning not too long after Abner Doubleday was said to have invented the game. The book is divided into nine chapters or “innings.” The “first inning” details the story of Rube Foster, the founder of the first Negro League and the “ninth inning” accounts the journey of Jackie Robinson as he crossed the color line into the previously all white major leagues. The paintings of the players, the stadiums, the baseball cards, the ticket stubs all add to this detailed and compelling story of baseball and many important players, who may not all be as famous as Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, but who forged a path that led to Jackie Robinson’s dramatic debut. The pain of bigotry and segregation is detailed in the words and the eyes of the players Nelson so beautifully depicts. And yet the joy of playing baseball leaps from every page.
Satchel Paige, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, with paintings by James E. Ransome
“Some say Leroy Paige was born six feet three and a half inches tall, 180 pounds, wearing a size fourteen shoe. Not a bit of truth to it. And some argue that when Mrs. Lula Paige first held her precious Leroy in her arms, she noticed his right fist was tightly curved around a baseball. Pure fiction. It would take him eighteen years to grow to that size and about half that amount of time to realize that his hand and a baseball were a perfect match.”
Lesa Cline-Ransome and her husband James Ransome have collaborated together to create a number of extraordinary books and “Satchel Paige” was their first joint work, and is a lovely tribute to the first black player named to Baseball’s Hall of Fame. James Ransome’s paintings bring the amazing Leroy Robert Paige to life as we learn how he came to be called Satchel (from carrying bags at the train station in Mobile, Alabama where he grew up). Lesa Cline-Ransome’s narrative is enthralling as the reader learns that Satchel was caught shop-lifting and spent five years in reform school where he perfected the art of pitching. “And no one pitched like Satchel Paige.” The writing, the paintings, and a chart of Paige’s vital statistics at the book’s end make this book an informative, entertaining and visually compelling read.
Teammates, by Peter Golenbock, Illustrated by Paul Bacon
“The general manage of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was a man by the name of Branch Rickey. He was not afraid of change. He wanted to treat the Dodger fans to the best players he could find, regardless of the color of their skin. He thought segregation was unfair and wanted to give everyone, regardless of race or creed, an opportunity to compete equally on ballfields across America. To do this, the Dodgers needed one special man.”
And so begins the story, as told artfully by Peter Golenbock, of Jackie Robinson’s early days in what has been called “the great experiment.” This short but powerful narrative of the many challenges faced by Robinson in making the Dodgers and traveling with the team is told simply and directly. And the stark truth of the death threats and the constant cruelty and humiliations by fellow players and opposing team players is seen in the short, muscular, declarative sentences describing Robinson’s life in the major leagues. Golenbock’s dramatic description in the closing pages of Pee Wee Reese’s bold move (for the time) in support of Robinson is direct and powerful. Paul Bacon’s watercolor illustrations are combined with black & white photographs and headlines from this important time period in the history of baseball – and civil rights.
This book can be read by all ages and, despite its complexity (of subject matter) and simplicity (in words and pictures) be understood by all who read it. We all want to be as brave and talented as Jackie Robinson and as brave and fair-minded (not to set aside the talented) as Pee Wee Reese. These two baseball greats made history in more than one way – they helped change our world for the better.
Useful Resources: Here are some additional resources to learn more about the Negro Leagues, the integration of major league baseball and James & Lisa Cline Ransome.
- Lisa Cline-Ransome’s website
- Negro League’s Baseball Museum
- Negro League’s Legacy
- Negro League’s Baseball Player’s Association
- “A Long Toss Back” (Smithsonian Magazine)
- Scholastic Lesson on Negro League’s (with a link to a “Breaking Barriers” essay contest for grades 4-9) Essay deadline is March 14, 2014
- Negro League Baseball website
- National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum