By Dave Woods
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
On a recent trip to Kansas City, I spent a couple of hours wandering through the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine District. My baseball knowledge is pretty thin, and I was scared it would be a stretch for me to write about sports.
As I learned more about the Negro Leagues, I realized it wasn’t a baseball story at all — it was an American story. The Negro Leagues sprung from a February 1920 meeting in Kansas City at the Paseo YMCA building. Early teams included the Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis ABCs (later the Clowns) and St. Louis Giants. Missouri was well represented in the league.
The museum’s importance really hit home when I talked to Bob Kendrick. Kendrick is president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and has a 20-year connection to the ever-evolving attraction. He’s served as a volunteer, worked as marketing director and is now president. He’s known the greats of the game. He knew John “Buck” O’Neil, a groundbreaking player and the first African-American major league coach. It doesn’t get more legit than that. O’Neil was also instrumental in the creation of the museum.
“It’s an incredible piece of American history that very few of us were privy to learn during our formal education,” Kendrick told me. “It’s a wonderful chapter of American history that nobody knew anything about. It’s all built around the premise of baseball, but it’s so much more than baseball.”
While the museum offers sports fans a box seat from which to view baseball history, the story is about more than just baseball.
“The way we try to position this story is about the social advancement of our country,” Kendrick said. “It’s about economic empowerment and leadership and all these things. It’s rolled into the story of baseball and this wonderful chapter. People really respond so positively once they get the opportunity to experience this history.”
Kendrick said it’s important that people understand the country’s history of segregation and intolerance, but he said it’s of greater importance that we educate young people to keep them from repeating the mistakes their elders made.
“It’s important we allow our children to look back in time if they are truly to appreciate how far we have come,” he explained. “It’s equally important for us as parents and community leaders and educators to empower our young people to take us where we still need to go. There is still great work to do in terms of improving race relations in our country. If our children are going to be asked to do this, they have to have a basic understanding from which we come. That’s what we do here.”
The museum takes the complex subject of segregation, which is difficult for some people to understand, Kendrick said, and simplifies it by telling it through the eyes of black baseball players.
“When the kids come here, they look at segregation really simplistically,” Kendrick said. “They look at segregation and just summarize it by saying, ‘That was dumb.’ We all know it was dumb. It was the way society was at that time, and it’s important for (young people) to understand what others had to endure and overcome to help make our country the country that is. We aim to position young people to take us where we need to go in the future.”
Breaking the barrier
As you walk through the museum’s exhibits, you realize just how many of Major League Baseball’s greatest players started during segregated times in the Negro Leagues.
“This is the league that gives us Jackie Robinson,” Kendrick said. “Robinson’s illustrious career began here in Kansas City with the great Monarchs. We make the bold assertion that Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier was not just a part of the civil rights movement, it was the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
Robinson’s fame preceded many notable moments in civil rights history.
“Not many people had linked Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier to civil rights,” Kendrick said. “This was 1947. It was before Brown vs. Board of Education. It was before Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus. As the late, great Buck O’Neil would eloquently say, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a sophomore at Morehouse (College) when Robinson signed his contract to play. President Truman would not integrate the military until a year after Jackie. Robinson is who started the ball of social progress rolling. He came out of the Negro Leagues. We should never forget Jackie Robinson. The courage that he displayed in the face of adversity was incredible.”
Robinson’s influence on America’s national pastime is an important part of Negro Leagues history. One of Kendrick ’s favorite exhibits in the 10,000-square-foot museum is a simple photograph that he said he believes has great importance.
“My favorite picture in the museum is one of a very young Henry Aaron standing in the train station in Mobile, Ala.” he shared. “He’s about to go join the Indianapolis Clowns. It’s the one place in the museum where our visitors get it. They are hearing about players they have never heard of before. I think they might even be a little skeptical about how good these guys were. On tours, I tell them about how good Cool Papa Bell was. Players they have never heard of. Then you get to a picture of young Hank Aaron. We all know what Hank Aaron accomplished at the major league level, but very few know that Hank’s career began in the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said.
When Kendrick was a young man, Aaron made a big impression on him, Kendrick said.
“I was almost 12 years old when he broke Babe Ruth’s record,” Kendrick said. “No one ever thought that Ruth’s record would ever be broken. Hank did it with class, grace and dignity.”
Want to go?
For Negro Leagues Baseball Museum hours of operation, ticket prices and exhibit information go to www.nlbm.com or call 816-221-1920.