- By Tom Shanahan, San Diego Hall of Champions
When the “Shades of Greatness” Negro Leagues exhibit visited the Hall of Champions in 2004, it featured art by Kadir Nelson, a San Diegan who attended Crawford High.
As an art student in New York, Nelson read the stories of Negro Leagues baseball and studied the pictures. At the time he was an aspiring 20-year-old artist studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, when he was commissioned to create a painting of legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.
As Nelson delved into his research, he began to learn of Negro Leagues’ heyday, the 1920s to the 1940s, a time when the national pastime was segregated. He was surprised to learn how little he knew of the Negro Leagues while growing up, playing some baseball in the youth leagues and later switching to basketball, volleyball and track in his high school years.
Nelson, now 30, is like a lot of us who love sports and appreciate history: He was fascinated by the revelations. But he’s unlike a lot of us in that he can bring to life, with his artwork, the figures he had studied.
The Crawford High alumnus has three pieces of art on display as a part of “Shades of Greatness,” a traveling art exhibit from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. The exhibit is visiting the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum from July 28 to Sept. 18.
One painting is “Willie Foster and Young Fans.” The Hall-of-Fame pitcher, dressed in a coat and tie, is on his way to a game, walking through a Pittsburgh neighborhood with four young boys, circa, 1933. Nelson’s research taught him the great admiration in the African-American community for ballplayers. Kids waited for the chance to interact with the players, offering to carry their uniform or glove or shoes.
Foster is painted larger than life, towering over the kids, but a piece of living history also jumped out of the portrait for Nelson one night last summer when the exhibit opened at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
“An older guy told me he used to be one of those kids carrying the ballplayer’s uniform,” Nelson said. “He told me stories about how they used to get into the game for free that way, and they would hide out until about the third inning before they would come out an walk around.”
Another time that history came to life was four years ago when Nelson’s work was on display at Qualcomm Stadium during an appearance by Buck O’Neil, the legendary Negro Leagues player and manager with the famed Kansas City Monarchs. Nelson, who is working on a compiling a book of his Negro Leagues art that will feature about 36 pieces, listened in awe as O’Neil gave an impromptu history lesson.
“It was a thrill to listen to him go through all the paintings, naming the guys and telling stories about them,” Nelson said. “That was really cool.”
Two other Nelson paintings on display at the Hall of Champions are “Big Rube” and “Low and Away.”
“Big Rube” depicts Rube Foster, a Negro Leagues player, manager, owner and founder of the Negro National Baseball League.
“Low and Away” shows Slim Jones of the Philadelphia Stars pitching against the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1936 at Yankee Stadium.
“I want to tell stories from the Negro Leagues players’ perspective,” Nelson said. “It’s a first-hand account of the how the players traveled around the country and Latin American, the segregation they faced and their hardships and triumphs. I want to honor these men and the history they created.”
“Willie Foster and Young Fans” and “Low and Away” are part of the traveling exhibit. “Big Rube” is also part of the traveling exhibit, although it is on loan to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum from Padres owner John Moores. Nelson’s first commissioned work a decade ago was of icons Paige and Gibson, but he also enjoys highlighting lesser-known Negro Leagues figures.
“Willie Foster is one of the few (Negro Leagues) players in the Hall-of-Fame, but not many people know about him,” Nelson said. “Slim Jones was one of the really great pitchers, but he didn’t play very long so no one really knows who he is.”
As a sports fan, Nelson describes himself more as a participant than a spectator. He’s been to many baseball games but never been to a pro football game, although he illustrated a Super Bowl story for Sports Illustrated.
His work also has appeared in the New York Times and the New Yorker. He has illustrated and written children’s books and worked for Steven Spielberg and Debbie Allen in visual development on the movie Amastad.
Amastad is a movie that takes place in the early 1800s when captured Africans aboard a slave ship were permitted, by a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, to return to Africa. Amastad and the Negro Leagues are both largely unknown but remarkable chapters in American history, so Nelson was asked if he saw a connection between the stories that are so prominent in his career.
“They’re great historical subjects,” he said. “But what do they say? History is written by the victorious. They put in what they think is relevant and leave out everything else. What I try to do is bring these subjects to life.”
In Kadir Nelson’s world, they’re larger than life.