It’s easy “to fall in love with the romanticism” of the Negro Leagues, Bob Kendrick says.
And the vibrant cast and vivid tales have been not merely preserved but animated by the efforts of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which has defied humble roots and wobbly times to suddenly begin its 25th year.
The museum continues morphing into a national treasure, but not just because it provides a showcase theater of characters and memorabilia from yesteryear.
It’s also because its mission is to serve as a repository of the narrative of this telling and pivotal chapter in U.S. history.
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When Horace Peterson, founder of the Black Archives of Mid-America, approached Buck O’Neil with the idea of a Negro Leagues Hall of Fame in the late 1980s, O’Neil had a different notion — one that might have seemed subtle but, in fact, was profound.
This needed to be a museum, not a Hall of Fame.
For one thing, O’Neil felt “there had been enough separation in our sport,” recalled Kendrick, the museum president, and that the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. N.Y., was the one and only.
For another, Kendrick said, “He felt that it was more important for us to preserve, celebrate and educate the public about a piece of history that they didn’t know anything about.”
As the museum commemorates its past and looks to its future, that sense of purpose is being reaffirmed by the day: both as the museum considers how to maximize its relevance and because of inevitable circumstances.
When Ernie Banks died a few weeks ago, lost was another voice and perspective who lived that life — in his case with the Kansas City Monarchs before he joined the Chicago Cubs.
There now remain perhaps 100 to 120 survivors of the heyday, Kendrick estimates.
“You’re only talking about a handful of guys who played before ’47 (and Jackie Robinson),” Kendrick said. “You think about the task of trying to keep something from going extinct.
“Because that’s essentially what our task was: You knew you had a finite piece of history relative to the people who made that history. They’re all going to be gone.
“And not only are they going to be gone, but the people who saw them play are going to be gone. And it becomes a distant memory. And the history books don’t bear it out.
“So there’s no real substantial records of them from the perspective of the pages of American history books.
“So this was going to be lost at some point in time.”
A fascinating part of all this is that there remains a lot of gray in this particular history.
And not just in the sense that it’s a blur of black and white in the most literal ways.
In fact, it’s a history still being cobbled together from a sort of archaeological dig for artifacts and markers — even as those pieces might be withering or crumbling or, in fact, dying.
This is why the privately funded museum recently spent $10,000 that wasn’t part of its approximately $1.3 million budget, Kendrick said, to acquire at an auction some recently discovered papers that shade in some gaps.
“We don’t go after too many pieces because we just can’t afford to do so,” Kendrick said. “But this one we thought we had a shot to get it because it was a document, and most people don’t look at the documents the way they look at jerseys and other pieces of memorabilia.”
Then amid the auction he went from “let’s try to get it” to … “have to get it” to … “uh-oh, now we’ve got to pay for it.”
But who else should be housing this document, soon to be on display, prepared by then-New York Yankees president Larry McPhail in 1945 for a committee to integrate baseball, appointed by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia?
The letter is DNA on the prevailing segregationist mind-set that kept African-Americans out of Major League Baseball until 1947 but also reveals some surprisingly progressive thinking.
“He was saying some things that were just kind of utterly ridiculous,” Kendrick said. “But then he was saying some other things that actually made legitimate sense.”
For instance, McPhail wrote with disdain typical of the time that “there are few, if any, negro players who could qualify for the major leagues at this time. A major league player must have something besides natural ability … (including) discipline usually only acquired after years of training in the smaller leagues.”
Yet he also wrote with what seemed like genuine concern — and foresight — about the consequence of integrating the game: the demise of the Negro Leagues, an economic and cultural hub of black America, and a considerable source of revenue for major-league teams that rented facilities to them.
Perhaps most remarkably, the letter concludes with a sentiment that he favored admitting entire black operations to Major League Baseball “if and when the negro leagues put their house in order” and that he otherwise favored “the adoption of some plan under which a limited number of negro players” could play in the majors.
“It would encourage the young negro player,” he added, “because it would give him a chance to reach the top.”
It’s unclear whether McPhail wrote this before or after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs on Nov. 1, 1945, but two years later Robinson became that very figure of encouragement.
It was a crucial breakthrough in American culture, but a double-edged sword for black America that augured the end of the Negro Leagues and, counterintuitively, had its downside in black society.
If you think you know it all, this is the sort of thought-provoking sliver of history that awaits at the museum.
It’s something I hadn’t considered at all until one day a year or so ago when I went to visit and found myself riveted by the tour guide … who turned out to be Kendrick.
More than 50,000 people attended the annual East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park, McPhail noted in his letter, and the Monarchs had drawn 315,000 people to its games in 1944.
So fans not only filled ballparks but patronized locals clubs, restaurants and hotels, and in an odd way segregation provided a sense of community:
The athletes were relegated to living in the same places as everyone else, Kendrick said.
“I’m not sure the African-American community realized what it was losing when it lost the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said. “For me, I always kind of summarize it by saying there’s always a cost for progress. Always.
“Today, typically it relates to technological advances and people losing jobs as a result of that progress. In the Negro Leagues, it had tremendous ramifications from an economic standpoint.
“And the recovery has been slow ever since, honestly.”
Not unlike the history it illuminates, the museum itself has had its share of challenges — and recoveries.
The first, of course, was overcoming skepticism over its appeal to begin with.
“When we first started, they said, ‘Well, nobody knows anything about the Negro Leagues,’” Kendrick said, laughing and adding, “Actually, that was the thing that benefited us: Nobody knew anything about the Negro Leagues.”
So it was born inauspiciously in a cozy room in the Lincoln Building, where the founders had to scrounge for the $200 a month it cost to rent space that was sparsely furnished with attractions.
It treaded water for a time, but it never wavered on a fundamental point of authenticity:
It needed to be in the very footprint of where Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell and so many others had walked and where it had all happened, a stone’s throw from the Paseo YMCA where the Negro Leagues were inaugurated in 1920.
“As a result we’ve seen 18th and Vine revitalized,” Kendrick said, “and I’m not sure that would have happened had the museum not anchored here.”
Four years later, the enterprise surged into an era of prosperity in the wake of Ken Burns’ documentary “Baseball,” which made O’Neil a household name.
“It made him an overnight star … at 82. Reborn at 82,” Kendrick said. “All of a sudden, he’s gallivanting around the country. I called him an evangelist: He was out preaching the gospel of the Negro Leagues and the virtues of his museum to anybody who would listen.”
So maybe it was small wonder that the operation sagged and lost its way in the aftermath of ultimate ambassador O’Neil’s death in 2006.
But it became all the more so because of a divisive, nearly ruinous decision to pass over Kendrick as president in 2009.
Instead, Greg Baker took over and an era of alienation ensued that reflected resentment of his thinking: “The museum operated in (O’Neil’s) shadow,” he told The Star in 2009. “For it to survive, we’ve got to change that.”
An economic downturn didn’t help, but many longtime supporters were offended by the implications of phasing out O’Neil and the checks dried up.
In the following fiscal year, the organization had to reach into its reserves to cover a $303,536 loss, the start of three straight years of six-figure losses for an organization that had known $1 million surpluses.
Kendrick, the former marketing director with a storytelling aptitude and spirit reminiscent of O’Neil, returned in April 2011 and has revitalized the operation.
It helped, he’ll note, that the museum has had some energizing annual events built-in to work with: a celebration of O’Neil’s 100th birthday in 2011, the MLB All-Star game in 2012, the release of “42” here in 2013 with Harrison Ford and co-star Chadwick Boseman walking the red carpet.
“So my biggest concern was what would we do the following year in 2014,” he said. “Then as fate would have it, the Royals made the playoff run to the World Series.”
And now it has a year of celebrating its 25th anniversary to galvanize more support.
None of which means anything is automatic for the museum, which has about 60,000 annual visitors and enjoys only occasional support from the city and state.
Even as it celebrates, it needs more visitors — how many people in the area haven’t visited this world-class monument?
And it needs more support yet to expand the operation, provide more programs and collections and house more history — history that is fading by the minute and shouldn’t be allowed to be lost.