BY LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
The story of Negro Leagues baseball has never been as fully integrated into general baseball history as baseball teams have been literally integrated.
The Negro Leagues, which began in the late 19th century, were a microcosm of discrimination in every facet of American life for most of its history. But blackball, as it was called, still produced legendary players and a rich cultural vein of community involvement.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., is the institution that preserves the legacy and it recently commissioned works from 27 artists as creative responses to it. Their 35 paintings, prints and sculptures are on view at the Tampa Bay History Center.
The variety of interpretations is wide, from realistic to conceptual, from fact-based to idealized. Most, though, reference specific individuals. Two of the greatest players, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, have four and three homages respectively.
Some artists turn their eyes on the fans, all acknowledging the importance the weekly games had for blacks, not just as sporting events but for their social interaction. Everybody, one artist notes, dressed in their Sunday best and a trip to the ballpark was usually a family affair. Kenneth Stanford, who was raised in St. Louis, recalls his grandmother marshalling him and his siblings to the ballpark regularly. His oil painting Game Day depicts elegant men and women in a bus depot arriving in time for the first pitch. The sign above them, "colored waiting room," makes a deeper point, of course, as does the subjects' impassiveness. The excitement and fun were within tightly controlled restrictions and people best not color outside the lines.
Willie Foster and Young Fans, an oil painting by Kadir Nelson, is one of the most accomplished in the group. It visually conveys the godlike status many players enjoyed in black communities. Foster, a famous pitcher, stands on a neighborhood street with a group of boys who worshipfully carry his game paraphernalia. Shopkeepers and passers-by stop and stare with respect. The painting's ground-level perspective gives Foster heroic proportions.
Two especially fun works allude to one of the most fascinating off-field players, Mrs. Effa Manley who co-owned and managed a Negro Leagues team, the only woman ever to do so.
Rob Hatem contributes a painting and sculpture more overtly ironic. Wood is carved as a question mark that ends as a bat handle and the dot beneath is a wooden ball. A stylized portrait of a player is done in blacks and grays, brightened only by a glistening white baseball being pitched. The wall text's comments include the observation that maybe the players enjoyed hitting it more for that reason.
But this isn't a racially charged show. It does have poignant moments, especially when individual players are singled out. Their stories mostly emphasize the what-ifs and lost opportunities because of skin color. One work commemorates the historic day — April 15, 1947 — that Jackie Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Another alludes to the eventual decision to include Negro Leagues players in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This is a show that can be appreciated by baseball ignoramuses like me as well as avid fans of the game. Even they will probably learn a lot. An added bonus is a documentary narrated by James Earl Jones that includes interviews with the men who played in the leagues. Some of their reminiscences are priceless.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.