The coolest, most ingenious, realest reason to believe in the future of an irreplaceable and often endangered crown of Kansas City is a pressed suit, sharp tie and matching pocket square.
It is an idea that started a short time ago with a guy and his roommate, and already is an official Royals promotion with thousands of fans wearing suits and ties and even some red dresses for fun and to pay respect to the Negro Leagues and the baseball museum at 18th and Vine.
They call it Dressed to the Nines, and you can see it and even take part at the Royals game on Sunday, a 1:10 p.m. start against the Yankees. This is the fourth year that Brad Belden and a buddy have done this, the second with official partnership from the Royals, and there is a growing hope that this might go national.
Buck O’Neil died nine years ago this fall, and there are some who thought the museum that became his life’s passion would fade without him. At times, it’s been hard to argue the point. The place has had some rough moments, both from the recession and a boneheaded hiring of a now former administrator.
But it’s easy to see this weekend’s celebration — in both what it is and how it came about — as the strongest sign yet that the museum and memories will live on.
“It absolutely is,” says Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “Every now and then an idea comes along so good you wish you thought of it. This was that good, like, ‘Damn, I wish I thought of that.’ Absolutely brilliant.
“And what makes it so cool, these are young white kids who had been moved to the point where they wanted to do this to pay homage to the Negro Leagues. They reached out, and it was a no-brainer.”
This began in 2012, when Belden and a friend took off work to see a panel discussion at the museum.
They were struck by hearing how folks used to dress up for baseball games. That was especially true for Negro Leagues games, and especially true for Negro Leagues games on Sundays, because most of the crowd came straight from church.
Jackie Robinson Day happened to be on a Sunday that year, and the Royals happened to be at home that day, so Brad and his friend decided to dress up. They wore suits and ties — thankfully it wasn’t too hot — and posed for pictures with some interested strangers. They even made the video board.
The next year, they used Twitter and Facebook to spread the word. Belden guesses 100 to 200 people met up at the sports bar in right field at Kauffman Stadium. Kendrick was on the pregame broadcast talking about the event, and then last year the Royals made it official with a fedora giveaway and other touches like jazz music and the groundskeepers dressing up.
This year, they’re adding a brunch, with a baseball-themed sermon from Emmanuel Cleaver. BET will be in town this weekend for a show that will air nationally later this year.
“We just thought it was important, because it started here, with Rube Foster and the YMCA,” Belden says. “It’s a piece of history in our backyard. I don’t think enough people know about the magnitude of what happened here in Kansas City.”
The path and growth of the celebration is reassuring to those of us who see value and importance in keeping the story of the Negro Leagues alive. Along with the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat, the Royals’ best two promotions are aimed at spreading that spirit.
These are particularly effective messages because they directly involve the fans. This isn’t something that happens on the field, on the other side of the wall from the paying customers.
Assuming you own a tie or a dress, it doesn’t cost anything to participate other than a ticket to the game, and who doesn’t enjoy an excuse to dress up?
The Negro Leagues’ best days came in a time when Americans dressed much more formally than we do today, but even by those standards it was a big part of the black community.
When a new player would join the Monarchs, for instance, the first thing that happened was a trip to the tailor at 18th and Vine. He’d be fitted for two suits, signing an IOU to pay when his checks came in.
“You never saw them outside the ballpark not dressed up,” Kendrick says. “I’m telling you, and you know it, Buck would absolutely be in hog heaven with this.”
That’s a huge part, too. The tie to the Negro Leagues is direct, meaningful, and natural. It’s real. Toby Cook, Royals vice president for community affairs, says the organization fell instantly in love with the idea. He says the club’s only other promotion that began so organically is Girls Night Out.
This is now at the point of being an every year thing in Kansas City, so the natural next step is to spread the celebration around baseball. That’s harder than it might sound, because without an official order from major league baseball that all teams will participate in some way, it would have to happen organically or through Kendrick’s relationships with other clubs.
One of the hurdles is that the museum, despite having a national scope and Congressional declaration, is often seen around the country as a Kansas City thing.
It is, of course, but it is also more than that.
The same is true of Dressed to the Nines. And in that way, the only thing better than how far the celebration has come already is how far it might go in the future.