Biographical Sketches: Sports

There are hundreds of books published that depict the stories behind the lives and accomplishments of historical African Americans. The stories told within these book remain a vital part of American culture and history. These famous individuals undertook great feats and efforts for the betterment of not only themselves, but their people as a whole. Their stories represent the sheer determination and depth of character that is required of individuals who aimed to follow dreams while overcoming prejudice.

The Tellings A People’s Story exhibition contains the stories of various African American athletes who displayed this type of courage and determination to reach their goals and cement their place in history.

The first book on the list, Perfect Timing: How Isaac Murphy Became One of the World’s Greatest Jockeys, tells the story of Isaac Murphy and how he was able to achieve the accomplishment of being known as one of the world’s greatest jockeys. Murphy gained recognition during a time plagued with the atmosphere of Jim Crow segregation and exclusions for most blacks. Despite these setbacks, Murphy was able to become one of the most successful thoroughbred racing jockeys in history, as well as being inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, tells the story of Negro League Baseball from the 1920s all the way to its decline in 1947, after Jackie Robinson was able to transition to the major leagues. The book depicts the history of the unsung heroes in negro baseball who were able to overcome segregation, hatred, terrible conditions, and low pay, all to have the opportunity to do the one thing they loved more than anything else – play baseball.

Although Willie and the All Stars written by Floyd Cooper is not necessarily a biography, it’s grouped along side the other biographies because it uses a fictional character to tell the stories of some of the most notable African-American baseball players in history. Lesa Cline-Ransome and Cooper use a fictional young boy named Willie as the protagonist to beautifully illustrate the determination that the men in the Negro Baseball League exhibited in the all-star game between Major Leaguers and Negro Leaguers. The book portray these athletes as role models in the eyes of the young boy Willie.

Satchel Paige, also written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by her husband James Ransome, portrays the career of Leroy “Satchel” Paige through elaborate illustrations. Cline-Ransome and Ransome take the readers on a trip through the life of Paige giving a clear idea of how he became the player known today as perhaps the best pitcher in baseball history and the first African-American pitcher to pitch in a World Series.

Our Children Can Soar, written by Michelle Cook provides a unique experience for the reacher through the book’s depiction of the cumulative story of the US Civil Rights Movement through multiple illustrators portrayals of the historical figures in the story. The stories are told through plain historical retellings combined with poetry; the result is entirely inspirational. The book features 12 illustrators, including those painted by R. Gregory Christie, James Ransome, Charlotte Riley Webb, Shadra Strickland and Eric Velasquez that are featured in the exhibition. 

Written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Frank Morrison, The Quickest Kid in Clarksville, is a timeless story of dreams, determination and the power of friendship. This book goes back to the hometown of Wilma Rudolph, three-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, Italy), and utilizes a fictional character named Alta to illustrate how Rudolph became a role model for so many African-American girls. 

A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis, written by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, chronicles the events of the historic 1938 fight between the African-American boxer Joe Louis and German boxer Max Schmeling. Although this was their second fight (Schmeling won the first in 1936) was technically just for the world heavyweight title, in the eyes of the American people the fight came to represent America’s war with Germany. It brought the American people together to celebrate the nation’s founding ideals. Nelson uses dramatic imagery to give the reader insight into the emotions flying around during this iconic match.

Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali, written by Charles R. Smith, Jr. and illustrated by Bryan Collier beautifully portrays the story of the boxer known to many as “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. This inspiring recount of Ali’s life illuminates how not all of his fights were confined to a boxing ring. Outside of boxing, Ali fought against societal prejudice and a war he refused to support because of his Islamic faith. Smith and Collier utilize rap-inspired verses combined with bold collage artwork to superbly illustrate Ali’s life from the moment he won the 1960 Olympic gold as a fired-up teenager, to the day he returned to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. As a retired boxer with hands shaking from Parkinson’s, Ali was still regarded as a legend, raising the torch one last time.

Another book depicting the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali is, Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born, written by Gene Barretta and illustrated by Frank Morrison. While the previous book focused predominantly on his career, this story aims to emphasize how one pivotal moment set him on his path to become the “Greatest of All Time.” The events in this story are from a time before he was one of the most recognizable faces in the world, before he was given his multitude of nicknames and before he converted to islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. This story begins with a twelve-year-old boy whose bike was stolen on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky. The end result of the story may be well-known, but the rousing events between the petty theft and his later fame are eye-opening and inspiring.


Book List:

Perfect Timing: How Isaac Murphy Became One of the World’s Greatest Jockeys. Written by Patsi B. Trollinger. Illustrated by Jerome LaGarrigue. Published by Viking, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2006.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. Written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Published by Jump At The Sun, 2008.

Willie and the All Stars. Written and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Published by Philomel Books, 2008.

Satchel Paige. Written by Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illustrated by James Ransome. Published by Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Our Children Can Soar. Written by Michelle Cook. Illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Published by Bloomsbury, 2009.

The Quickest Kid in Clarksville. Written by Pat Zietlow Miller. Illustrated by Frank Morrison. Published by Chronicle Books, 2016.

A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis. Written by Matt De La Pena. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Published by Dial Books, 2011.

Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali. Written by Charles R. Smith, Jr. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Published by Candlewick Press, 2010.

Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born. Written by Gene Barretta. Illustrated by Frank Morrison. Pulished by Katherine Tegan Books, 2017.