816 North

Chappell’s keeps sports history alive with carefully curated shrine

Updated: 2014-02-11T16:47:40Z

Text by JONATHAN BENDER,

Special to The Star | Photos by Keith Myers, The Kansas City Star

Jim Chappell is in the news again.

Days before Super Bowl Sunday, the 71-year-old folds his tall, trim frame into a wooden seat by the fireplace, an hour before the dining room at Chappell’s Restaurant & Sports Museum begins to fill up for lunch.

“USA Today says I’m in the 10 best places in the country to watch the Super Bowl,” Chappell says. “That sounds great, doesn’t it?”

He flashes a grin, and the laughter rolls out of him before the punch line.

“But I don’t know what to do. I’m not open on Sundays. I haven’t been for 28 years.”

This once, though, the article convinced him to open his doors for Super Bowl Sunday, and he ended up entertaining a small crowd at the bar.

But since 1986, the restaurant on Armour Road in North Kansas City had been doing just fine the other six days of the week. Chappell’s is a working and living museum, where bare wall space is as rare a commodity as the Oakland Athletics’ 1973 World Series trophy that sits mounted behind the bar. The museum physically immerses you in sports history — the only bare surfaces are the bar, tables, seats and carpet — leaving patrons to order a steak soup and then get up to gawk at Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves or Paul Hornung’s 1956 Heisman Trophy.

“Walking into Chappell’s for free is a better value than some sports museums I’ve paid to enter,” says Marty Willadsen, vice president of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

The breadth of what’s on display can draw in even casual sports fans. The autographs alone have kept the Sharpie people in business. This isn’t just a Kansas City sports bar. It’s a resurrection of the teams — the Kings, Monarchs, Blues and Athletics — that have left the city.

“Let me show you something,” Chappell will say, moments after inquiring where you grew up or went to college. He’ll flick through a mental catalog that rivals the Dewey Decimal System, and seconds later you’re standing underneath a helmet from your alma mater. It’s no parlor trick. Chappell’s collection is just that large: more than 1,000 helmets in a treasury that numbers more than 10,000 items by his account.

“It’s all done through relationships,” says Willadsen. “And from those relationships the memorabilia comes.”

The restaurant and museum has expanded four times, absorbing an adjacent arts and crafts store and stretching to 7,300 square feet. Somewhere amid all the expansions, Chappell’s evolved into an institution. The late Kansas City Chiefs’ owner Lamar Hunt was like a part-time docent, shepherding guests on tours to walk through the Chiefs’ legacy that played out across the dining room. Charley Finley, the late former owner of the Oakland Athletics (he moved the team from Kansas City in 1968) gifted Chappell with friendship and enough jerseys to outfit an infield.

“This used to be a fun place to go on a date, at least for me, growing up as a sports fan,” says Kathy Nelson, the president & CEO of the Greater Kansas City Sports Commission, who has been eating at Chappell’s since she was a student at Winnetonka High School. “This was our Northland hangout. But today, even if you’re downtown and you say ‘Chappell’s,’ people know what you mean.”

The national scene woke up to what Kansas Citians could have told you for two decades in 2005 when Sports Illustrated named Chappell’s was named one of the 10 best sports bars in America. In the years since, dozens of publications have echoed what SI wrote, with USA Today’s Super Bowl mention two weeks ago being the latest. In honor of what he’s built in North Kansas City, Chappell was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.

“If people want to see sports memorabilia, it’s one of the foremost places in the world,” says Willadsen. “Kansas City and Missouri is lucky to have a place like Chappell’s. And the coup de grace is that when you go, you get to talk to Jim.”

As Jim Chappell tells it, nothing much changed in Keokuk, Iowa, where he was born. The soda jerks scooped ice cream at the Rexall, Hoerner Waldorf Corp. sent cardboard boxes all over the world, and Chappell was free to do what boys did in the books that filled his home.

“I grew up like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer right on the Mississippi,” says Chappell.

In the summers, he and his older brother would fish for catfish in the river and eat watermelon kept cold in a well next to the family’s summer cottage. His father, who had a real estate office downtown, would buy them a case of pop and sparklers on the Fourth of July, and Chappell would try to stay awake to listen for the commercial fisherman checking lines at 3 a.m.

His first three jobs were at his father’s office on Fourth Street. A three-hour shift as an office boy earned him a dime for a Coke. Eventually he was promoted to janitor and at the same time delivered the morning paper for the Des Moines Register, which had an office on the first floor of his father’s building.

Chappell attended Drury University in Springfield. In need of a major, he settled on art, graduating with a degree in 1965. After college, Chappell went to work at Arrowhead Lodge on the Lake of the Ozarks. It’s there that he met Gina, his wife of 47 years. The same number of years, he notes wryly, as the Super Bowl has been held.

“She didn’t want anything to do with me,” Chappell says of Gina. “She thought I was too wild. But I’m charming … I think.”

The newlyweds moved to Kansas City when Chappell got a job as a salesman for Mobil Oil.

“I could never wrap my head around the corporate world,” Chappell says of his five years with Mobil. “I had this green metal desk in a cubicle and I thought my dad would roll over in his grave if he saw me sitting there.”

The corporate world might have vexed Chappell, but he had a head for business. Over the next decade he launched an insurance firm focused on pension planning and operated a license bureau for the state. But it was his third business that would become his life’s work and lead him to move on from the first two.

“I wanted this place to look like it was open 35 years the day I opened,” Chappell says. “I put everything up, and I just waited to get there. It’s not quite there yet.”

Amid the volume of artifacts, it’s easy to miss that this is a carefully organized collection with Chappell as its curator. He steps over to the wall to the left of the fireplace and moves his hand in a horizontal line. He notes the height of the frames and the equal spacing between photos.

“There are no dead spots. It’s a puzzle,” Chappell says. “I was educated in art, and I feel like I’ve used that education. I’ve curated this place.”

The museum’s profile has changed as the world has discovered the sports museum that happens to have a restaurant attached to it, but what hasn’t changed is Chappell.

“I just decorate a restaurant. I don’t take any of this serious,” he says. “But I’ll tell you what has meaning to me. The relationships have meaning to me. Some of the people that the world looks at as nobodies — they haven’t won a Super Bowl or hit a home run — are just great people. And I never would have met them if I didn’t have this place.”

Chappell’s ability to cultivate an audience suggests that he very easily could have been the mayor of a small town. Instead, he’s simply re-created that atmosphere on Armour Road.

Chappell “takes pride in knowing the area and the people that come in. He will go out of his way to talk with guests and make them feel like friends and family,” says Kipp Feldt, co-owner of Big Rip Brewing Co. “I’ve also known more than a few people that have worked there, and they all have said it was like a second home for them.”

Chappell is often planted at the bar, not far from the World Series trophy. It was there that he learned how former NFL player and actor Alex Karras knocked out the horse in “Blazing Saddles.” (It was trained to fall over.) It was there Chappell was named a superdelegate at large for the 2008 Republican National Convention. (He phoned then-Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri.)

“People ask me why I don’t open another place,” says Chappell. “You can’t just stop in. You live it. This is my world. This is where I should be.”

Long before there was The Secret or magical thinking, there was Jim Chappell on a barstool. When he says, “Let me show you something,” and sets off walking, you have no choice but to follow — not just to match his long strides, but because you want to know what’s at the end of the walk. More often than not the conversation will come back to where you were born. And the reason he cares about your hometown is because he still loves his.

“I never really left Keokuk,” says Chappell. “That’s where they’ll bury my ashes.”

But until he’s called home, he’ll keep telling tales of Kansas City — a small-town storyteller at the heart of a big city. He’ll stoop his shoulders as he recounts the history of the Mafia in the Midwest or dip his shoulders and take on the gruff tone of Bill Grigsby. He’ll breathe life into another town’s legacy.

“Kansas City is fortunate to have someone like Jim Chappell,” says Nelson, of the Greater Kansas City Sports Commission. “He’s our hometown guy. He gets our history and what we’re about.”

After stopping to chat at a booth and two tables, Chappell walks into the front room where a photographer is waiting to take his picture for a newspaper story. The hostess catches his attention, and he excuses himself. She’s got a telephone receiver against her shoulder. The local news wants to send a crew to the restaurant to cover the Super Bowl piece in USA Today. He doesn’t hesitate.

“Tell them to come on down,” says Chappell. “I’ll be here.”

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