Chappell’s keeps sports history alive with carefully curated shrine

02/11/2014 10:47 AM

02/11/2014 10:47 AM

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.”