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Special players relive their diamond glory

DATE OF EVENT: Saturday, Nov.1, 1997

DATE PUBLISHED: Sunday, Nov. 2, 1997, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: The opening of the jazz and Negro Leagues museums marked the beginning of redevelopment in the historic 18th and Vine district. A traveling Negro Leagues exhibit had been dedicated in 1993, the year before Ken Burns’ baseball documentary put former Monarch Buck O’Neil in the spotlight. Permanent sites for the baseball and the jazz museums opened in 1997.

Special players relive their diamond glory

Baseball veterans join in opening the Negro Leagues Museum

By Steve Penn and Tony Rizzo

They came from every corner of the nation.

Young and old. Former Negro League players, their widows, their families. Celebrities in film, in professional sports and in broadcasting.

And for each of the 1,700 people who attended the gala for the opening of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, there was only one reason to be there.

They were there to pay respects to heroes of baseball once-forgotten.

“I feel excited and very overjoyed,” said Randall Ferguson, president of the museum. “Tonight is the night that we in Kansas City celebrate the integration of white baseball and the integration of the major leagues.”

The gala garnered more than $475,000 in contributions and ticket sales. After expenses, the net was $150,000, which will go toward the museum, said Bobby Kendrick, the event co-chairman.

The event singled out Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who received the first Buck O’Neil Leadership Award.

“It’s a great honor to receive this award,” Cleaver said. “It is an even greater honor to know Buck O’Neil.” …

Sportscaster Bob Costas, the master of ceremonies, began by reading a list of 35 players from the league who attended the festivities.

Costas also introduced filmmaker Ken Burns, who has documented the journey of the Negro Leagues. …

Then Burns gave the invocation.

“Tonight we celebrate a group of men just as important as all the senators and congressman in Washington,” Burns said. “Nothing is more important than being a witness to history. Today, you are a witness to the history.”…

Earlier in the day, former Negro League players stood outside the museum on 18th Street, posing for pictures and signing autographs.

Willie “Red” Harris and Joseph Marbury had come from Birmingham, Ala. Carl Long was there from Kinston, N.C. …

For Curt Miner, pastor of the United Church of Christ in Clarion, Iowa, it was a little slice of heaven.

The 280-mile drive was nothing for a man who says the Negro Leagues have been the passion of his adult life. On Saturday, he collected player autographs in his thick copy of the Encyclopedia of Negro Baseball Leagues. …

Carl Long, former center fielder for the Birmingham Black Barons, had to sit and rest his feet. …

He wishes someone would have founded a museum a long time ago.

“So many old-time players didn’t get a chance to see it,” he said.

One of them who couldn’t make it was Long’s North Carolina neighbor, Buck Leonard. He is one of the dozen men immortalized in bronze at the museum. Long said he would visit Leonard and share photographs and other memories of the museum.

Not all of those visiting the museum Saturday were ballplayers. Celebrities explored the museum during a private reception Saturday night, before the gala.

Among those taking a look was Danny Mantle, the son of baseball great Mickey Mantle.

Mantle, 37, stopped to focus on a picture of Cool Papa Bell, a player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, the same year as his father.

“I can remember my dad telling me the story about how fast he (Bell) really was,” said Mantle. “My dad had lots of black friends, and he’d be proud that I was here.” …

Leroy Woodard brought his friends, Carl Peterson and Robert Short, to tour the museum earlier in the day.

There’s an old story about pitcher Satchel Paige telling his fielders to go sit down, and then him striking out the other side.

Well, Woodard said he saw it. In Wichita, where the Kansas City Monarchs played on their barnstorming tours of the Midwest.

And Peterson said he saw Paige pitch in Birmingham, Ala. Peterson said he had always been a baseball nut. Standing amid the sights and sounds of a bygone era, Peterson smiled at the memories.

It was the second day after he moved to Kansas City in 1940. It was a Sunday — opening day for the Kansas City Monarchs.

It was a grand event in Kansas City’s black community, complete with a parade from 18th Street to the old ballpark on Brooklyn Avenue.

“That’s something you never forget,” he said.

Now Kansas City has a museum to ensure that no one ever does.

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