Former baseball star Willie Foster stands under a clear, blue sky in a sleek, black suit and wide-brimmed hat, a baseball bat at his side. Four children in tattered, drab clothes surround him, each holding a piece of baseball equipment. A red-brick shoe store and barber shop complete the urban scene.
The atmospheric portrait, painted by Kadir Nelson, sets a somber mood for “Shades of Greatness,” an art exhibit on view at the Louisville Slugger Museum. The 35-piece collection chronicles the now-defunct Negro Leagues that were created 84 years ago this month and existed into the 1960s, long after Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues.
The Louisville museum is the first stop for the traveling show, which was launched by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
“It’s one of the most important things we’ve ever done,” said Bob Kendrick, the Negro League museum’s marketing director. “It’s another way to introduce Negro Leagues baseball to a sector of the population who may not have been aware of the story before.”
In 1920, the Negro National League became the first fully organized baseball league for black players, who were shunned by the all-white majors; the Eastern Colored League was established in 1923. Robinson broke the major league color barrier in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jazz from the 1940s provides a fitting musical background as patrons at the bat museum browse the widely diverse works in “Shades of Greatness,” produced by 28 artists.
“Sunday Best,” by Keith Shepherd, is splashed with bright colors, portraying a well-dressed crowd wildly cheering the Kansas City Monarchs, who captured three Negro League pennants from 1923-25. Games became gatherings where spectators mingled, regardless of social standing, Shepherd explains in an accompanying caption.
“People, whether they were a farmer, mortician, homemaker, mechanic, barber or hotel owner came out in droves dressed to impress,” it reads.
“Looking Him Back,” is a darker depiction, showing a lone pitcher concentrating on his task. Artist Lonnie Powell said he was trying to convey the black struggle for acceptance in baseball as well as society. “The piece had to portray the dignity of a people forced to live through a shameful time in our history,” Powell wrote.
Kendrick said the Negro Leagues museum gathered the artists in Kansas City in March 2003 and gave them a daylong lesson on the league’s history. After that, they were left to their creativity.
“We really didn’t want them to focus on photorealistic depictions. We wanted them to interpret what they saw, tap into their imaginations,” Kendrick said.
Stirring deep emotionsThe Louisville museum was chosen for the first show simply because the museums have coordinated other exhibits in the past, Kendrick said. The Slugger museum chronicles the history of the world’s most famous baseball bats and shows how they are made.
But the Negro Leagues exhibit features only three Louisville Slugger bats — simple stock models, each held by bronze pair of hands. The hands belong to Negro Leaguers “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Byron “Mex” Johnson and Buck O’Neil, who gained fame for his eloquent storytelling in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary, “Baseball.”
Now 92, O’Neil is the subject of four grainy, black-and-white photographs taken in July 2003 by Steve Wilson. The pictures show O’Neil in a Kansas City Monarchs uniform with a ballpark as a backdrop.
O’Neil saw the exhibit in Kansas City last fall. Each work stirred deep emotions.
“It probably took me longer to walk through there than it would the average person because they would say, ’Yeah, I heard about this and I heard about that,”’ O’Neil said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was there. It was special being there and knowing what it was all about.
An oil depiction by Jared Kraus of Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues’ all-time home run king, rekindled O’Neil’s memories of a game between O’Neil’s Monarchs and Gibson’s Homestead Grays.
“We got them down by a couple of runs,” O’Neil recalled. “A young guy on their team gets up in the ninth inning and he gets on base. We get one guy out, we get the next guy out and then here comes Josh.
“This kid tried to steal second and he got thrown out. Josh looks at the kid and says, ’Hey, what’s the idea?’ The kid says, ’Josh, I wanted to get into scoring position.’ Josh says, ’Son, I’m in scoring position when I get up to the plate.”’
The works are being displayed in the Pee Wee Reese Exhibit Theater at the museum. Reese played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and became well-known for his efforts to ease Robinson’s transition from the Negro Leagues to the majors.
O’Neil recalled meeting Reese and Brooklyn teammate Eddie Stanky at Ebbets Field.
“I say, ’Hey fellas, is Jackie gonna make it?”’ O’Neil recalled. “They looked at me and said, ’We’re going to see that he makes it.”’
Robinson is shown walking out of a dugout — from shadows into sunlight — in a painting by Norm Bannister.
Satchel Paige, a Negro Leagues star and pitching legend, is the subject of the exhibit’s largest work. The 62-inch-by-84-inch portrait, by Steve Musgrave, has a wood frame engraved with the colorful names Paige gave his favorite pitches: “Midnight Creeper,” “Two-thump Blooper,” “Little Tommy,” among others.
O’Neil said the exhibit provides a vital record to an important piece of America’s past.
“This is history people should know,” he said. “But the other thing I like about this is there are only a few of us left who can tell this story. They (the artists) did a beautiful job telling it.”
After the show leaves Louisville in July, it goes to Indianapolis. Other tentative stops are San Diego and the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.