The happiest day in the history of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum should not have happened on a sunny and beautiful June afternoon in 2017. This should have happened long ago. Ten years ago, at least. Twenty, if we want to be closer to the truth.
This is written partly as a criticism of the past, but more as a challenge for the future.
Because what the two most powerful institutions in baseball did for the sport this week deserves to be seen in a better-late-than-never way, and celebrated for finally happening.
But most importantly, it should be seen as just the beginning.
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Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball’s commissioner, and Tony Clark, the head of the players’ union, came to Kansas City to make official a joint donation of $1 million to the museum. This ties the museum’s largest gift ever, matching the total given by the Kauffman Foundation after Buck O’Neil’s death in 2006.
“That’s a lot of zeros,” museum president Bob Kendrick said when presented an oversized symbolic check.
This moment is important beyond the dollar amount. For far too long, the museum has done its vital work in the dark, and alone. Baseball revenues have skyrocketed toward $10 billion, and the museum has been at best an afterthought.
There have been smaller donations from time to time — $25,000 here, or $10,000 there — but the treatment has bordered on condescension.
Baseball has generally viewed the museum too much like a charity asking for a handout, and not what it is — an inspiring place keeping alive a critical part of baseball and American history.
The blame can be spread for this. Star players skipped the museum’s annual awards show with such frequency that the whole thing was scrapped. Bud Selig was commissioner for all but two of the museum’s first 25 years of existence, and didn’t visit until his 20th year in office — when he was already in town for the 2012 All-Star Game.
The Royals have done well in honoring O’Neil but too often have ignored opportunities to help the actual museum — even twice deciding to save a few dollars by not wearing Negro Leagues uniforms for Negro Leagues Day.
There are a million examples like this, the museum being treated like an unsolicited magazine salesman.
“Yes,” Clark said when asked if this gift should’ve been made long before. “And I’ll throw myself under the bus here. I know as a player I didn’t do enough in terms of providing support to the museum and its history. But I think more should’ve been along the way.”
Clark has been the union chief for less than four years, and is humble to say even that much. Manfred has been commissioner for two years and worked in the commissioner’s office full-time for 19. He essentially brushed off the question of whether something should’ve been done earlier.
“I try to get where I think we need to be today,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of time to think about whether we, I, or somebody should’ve done something 10 or 15 years ago.”
That’s weak, but fine, let’s move on. Again, the point is not to criticize past mistakes — it’s to challenge future actions.
Because if this is another go-away donation — even at a much higher amount — then nothing has really changed.
But if this is truly a sign of the powers within baseball better realizing the importance of the Negro Leagues’ story, particularly as the game scrambles to attract more African-American athletes, then this can be a nice first step toward some real change.
Clark deserves most of the credit for this. He made the first call to Manfred, led on where the money would come from and what it could be used for, and made the call to Kendrick. Manfred didn’t need his arm twisted, but he did need to be leaned on a bit.
Both men talked of being proud to give to the museum, and of the importance in using the past to inspire the next generation. Each indicated a desire to support the museum into the future.
The donation comes without restrictions, but Kendrick said the money will increase traveling exhibitions, upgrade the museum space, boost operational support and help the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center.
It’s ultimately up to Kendrick to maximize the gift, but he’s spent most of the last two decades doing that to help the museum survive and expand.
Assuming he continues to do his part, here’s hoping baseball and the union are serious about this being the beginning of them doing their part.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown would not be able to function without support from Major League Baseball. The Negro Leagues Museum has, for decades, essentially run itself without major and official contributions from Major League Baseball.
Hopefully, this is the beginning of change.