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Squeeze play: Birmingham, Ala., wants a Negro Leagues museum like the one in KC

Updated: 2013-07-07T04:51:12Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

You mean there’s more than one major museum celebrating Negro Leagues baseball?

Not yet. But they hope to break ground for another one in Birmingham, Ala., later this year, which is not exactly welcome news at the corner of 18th and Vine.

Indeed, the folks who run the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City even object to the terminology Birmingham officials are using to describe their enterprise.

“We have some problem with them calling their project a Negro Leagues baseball museum,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Kansas City organization. “We own that name.”

Aside from the trademarked name, Kendrick has far bigger concerns. Chief among them is the financial impact the Birmingham project could have on museum attendance and charitable donations.

Might a competing institution dilute both?

If Birmingham’s museum focuses strictly on that city’s connection to the Negro Leagues — and is, therefore, more a regional attraction — that would be less of a concern.

But if it ends up telling the broader story of the era when African-Americans weren’t allowed to play ball in the all-white big leagues, Kendrick said, that will be problematic.

“It would be like building another National Baseball Hall of Fame,” he said. “Why do that when we already have one in Cooperstown?”

The folks in Birmingham have done little to assuage those concerns so far. Their response is a nuanced response. Yes, their museum will focus on that city’s rich baseball history, said Chuck Faush, chief of staff for Mayor William Bell.

“But you can’t talk about the Birmingham Black Barons without talking about the league,” he said. “You have to place it in context.”

The news out of Birmingham comes at a key moment for the Kansas City museum, which has endured tough times since its founder and key rainmaker, baseball legend Buck O’Neil, died in 2006.

Inner turmoil over the museum’s direction led to financial setbacks that were worsened by the recession. The institution suffered losses from 2009 to 2012, according to tax returns reviewed by The Star.

Even though the overall organization saw a minor loss last year, museum operations finished in the black last year, Kendrick said.

And in the 2013 fiscal year that just ended, the numbers are sure to be even better, once they’re all added up.

During an interview at the museum office last week, Kendrick was his jovial self. Things are looking up, he said. Donations are rolling in again. The long-delayed expansion into a satellite facility, the former YMCA on the Paseo, is finally poised to go forward.

So the last thing the Kansas City museum needs right now, he said, is competition for visitors and financial support from yet another city-backed museum focusing on the history of black baseball.

“We feel strongly that there’s no need to duplicate efforts,” he said.

‘Vultures’ overhead

Birmingham wouldn’t be the first to think about jumping on the Negro Leagues bandwagon that took off in the 1990s.

Thanks largely to O’Neil and the stories he told on Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary about his years playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, interest in the history of black baseball has been growing.

A few years ago, a group in Washington, D.C., discussed building a museum there but never got around to it, starting a website instead for a Negro League Legends Hall of Fame.

Two museums were proposed for Baltimore, but only one of them opened its doors four years ago — in a church basement.

The Hubert V. Simmons Negro Leagues Baseball Museum of Maryland is named after a former member of the Baltimore Elite Giants, is operated by his widow and is open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays and Saturday, by appointment only.

Which is to say Kansas City has until now had the Negro Leagues baseball museum field pretty much all to itself since it was founded 23 years ago in a one-room office across the street from its current home in the complex it has shared with the American Jazz Museum since 1997.

Word that Birmingham was considering starting its own Negro Leagues museum began circulating in 2008. A year later, the then-mayor hired an architect and announced that he had also reached an agreement with Layton Revel, founder of the all-volunteer Center for Negro League Baseball Research.

Revel, who lives in the Dallas area, oversees perhaps the largest collection of Negro Leagues artifacts in the world. Valued at $4 million, it includes rare items like a complete uniform worn by Satchel Paige. If Mayor Larry Langford built the 25,000-square-foot museum then being talked about, Revel said at the time, Birmingham could have all of it.

This was also about the time that the Kansas City museum was at its lowest point. Some longtime supporters quit opening their wallets to protest the leadership of then-president Greg Baker.

They thought the job should have gone instead to Kendrick, O’Neil’s close friend and then the museum’s marketing director. That first year with Baker in charge, the museum saw its first loss in years.

In the fiscal year that followed, the organization had to dip into its reserves to cover a $303,536 loss, compared with the mid 2000s, when $1 million annual surpluses were not uncommon.

When Baker resigned a few months after that June 30, 2010, financial report, folks in Birmingham took note.

“You know how vultures are flying over you, waiting for your demise?” said Kendrick. “I think there was a little of that.”

Birmingham’s newspaper made no bones about it. When plans were announced for a new downtown ballpark to house the city’s minor league franchise, the Birmingham Barons, an editorial urged the city to do more than build a Negro Leagues museum. It should wrest Kansas City’s away.

“…Due to poor leadership, the Negro League Baseball Museum is in dire straits,” the key editorial read. “Birmingham should do whatever it can to relocate (it) to the new museum (the city) plans to build near the new ballpark.”

Room for both?

Things have changed in the years since the Birmingham museum was first proposed. Langford went to jail in 2009 on unrelated corruption charges and the project’s size was scaled back. Now the plan is to build a museum about the size of Kansas City’s, 10,000 square feet.

And more important, Kansas City’s museum is no longer in danger of folding, as some had feared, so no way are its contents moving to Alabama.

In fact, later this summer the museum board hopes to convince the City Council to spend $500,000 in tax dollars to help complete the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center in the former Y. In addition to programming, the center will have room for rotating exhibits.

The museum board has raised $3 million and thinks the project can be finished with an additional $1.5 million to $3 million.

The original cost estimate of $15 million was slashed when an addition to the building was cut out of the plan. Also reducing the price were the efforts of barbecue restaurant chain owner Ollie Gates. He spent some of his money and convinced area contractors and suppliers to donate labor and materials as he oversaw renovation work.

“He wasn’t there just as a figurehead,” Kendrick said. “He was there in boots, gloves and hard hat.”

Down in Birmingham, the current mayor has pledged to complete the project started by his predecessor. In May, the City Council approved spending $400,000 on design work.

A grand opening could come sometime next year, said Faush, the city spokesman.

As to whether it will compete with the Kansas City museum for dollars and attention, Faush declined to comment. He also shared no specific information on the type of exhibits being planned, except that the hope is that they will be interactive.

“We really think we’re going to have a unique facility” he said, “honoring those who’ve given so much to the sport.”

Faush stressed that the museum will largely focus on the role that Birmingham and the region around it played in the birth and development of Negro Leagues baseball.

The name of the city’s current baseball team is an homage to the Birmingham Black Barons, for whom Paige and Willie Mays played before the color line was broken and they moved to the major leagues.

But the museum won’t be limited to Birmingham baseball.

In other words, there will be some duplication, but Revel, the Texas collector, said there is room for both institutions.

“There needs to be a museum in the United States that tells the whole history of Negro League baseball,” he said.

That’s Kansas City’s job, Revel said, and will continue to be.

“What the folks in Birmingham are doing will in no way, shape or form conflict with what the museum in KC is doing,” he said.

Revel said he plans to lend items for display to both museums after Birmingham’s is built and Kansas City’s expansion is finished.

“The museum there in Kansas City has struggled, there’s no question,” he said. “But personally, I think they’re on the uphill swing of things.”

Kendrick is confident of that, but he also plans to keep a close eye on development in Alabama’s largest city.

“Birmingham has a rich black baseball history,” he said.

His advice: Stick with that and it’s a home run for everybody.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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