Vahe Gregorian

Thriving in Buck O’Neil’s shadow, Bob Kendrick is creating his own beautiful legacy

NLBM president Bob Kendrick on Buck O’Neil

Thanks to Bob Kendrick, Buck O”Neil still looks large over the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum a decade after former NLBM director sought distance from the legend.
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Thanks to Bob Kendrick, Buck O”Neil still looks large over the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum a decade after former NLBM director sought distance from the legend.

Much in the spirit of Buck O’Neil, the angel he feels on his shoulder, Bob Kendrick is a radiant man who can make anyone feel welcome — which is saying something for someone who seems to be everywhere at once representing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

For that matter, he seems as at ease with himself as anyone I’ve ever met.

But the NLBM president nonetheless is acquainted with pressure, enough that if you tell him it makes diamonds he’ll laugh and say “yeah, yeah, yeah — or busts pipes.”

So the master storyteller found himself agonizing after learning he’d have only 30 seconds to speak on behalf of the NLBM when it was named the small non-profit of the year at the 2019 American Business Awards at the banquet last month in New York.

Just like always, really, he came through for the museum:

“The story of the Negro Leagues is a powerful, compelling story of strong-willed individuals who forged a glorious history in the midst of an inglorious time in American history,” he said in part.

Whew, 29 seconds, maybe a couple ticks less, with the threat of music playing louder and louder if he went over.

“I was not,” he said, smiling, “going to let them play that music on me.”

Long ago as it might seem now, that serves to remind that only a decade ago the NLBM was left facing a different kind of music: that its days could be numbered amid three straight years of six-figure losses for an organization that previously had mostly known $1 million surpluses.

And it makes for a milestone to pause and appreciate that Kendrick and his team resuscitated the museum back into a thriving national treasure and must-see destination here, something that hardly was automatic.

From out of the abyss, the NLBM now is a routine stop for MLB teams and other dignitaries and regularly part of All-Star Game ceremonies among too many other distinctions to list.

Now it’s preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the inception of the Negro Leagues next year, a celebration Kendrick believes can be carried out in sites across the nation and has the “potential to set the museum up for perpetuity.”

Thanks in great part to Buck coursing through Kendrick, his disciple who has a magic aura all his own as the most infectiously upbeat, engaging and best-dressed man in town.

Ten years after the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was in serious trouble, Bob Kendrick has rejuvenated the national treasure because it’s a calling to him.

Accordingly, if you go to the museum and have a little bit of luck, you might find Kendrick approaching you to chat. Or he could be leading a tour in the fashion that a friend equated to a minister delivering a sermon that echoes of Buck.

“He was preaching the gospel of the Negro Leagues to virtually anybody who would listen,” Kendrick said. “That was kind of his pulpit. And he delivered ‘the word.’ He really did.”

So does Kendrick, thank goodness.

To understand the significance of what he’s done, let’s flash back to where we were:

What Kendrick calls a perfect storm formed out of the economic downturn, an inadequate succession plan in the wake of O’Neil’s death at 94 in 2006 and the stunning, alienating notion of then-NLBM president Greg Baker figuring the way forward was … to distance from O’Neil’s legacy.

“People understood Buck very well, but the museum operated in his shadow,” Baker told The Star in 2009. “For it to survive, we’ve got to change that.”

In fact, the answer was in the shadow ... as no one knew or could embody like Kendrick.

Having been “bitten by the Buck bug” in 1993, Kendrick had been on the board of the NLBM since its inception in 1997 before becoming its first head of marketing only to be passed over for the presidency at a pivotal time.

To Kendrick, who left in 2010 to become executive director for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, Baker’s sentiments and efforts to distance from O’Neil bordered on sacrilegious.

“I think a lot of people felt like Buck had been kicked out of his museum,” Kendrick said, later adding, “Number one, he’s the man who built your house. Number two, that’s what museums do — they keep people alive who are no longer with us.

“We keep them alive. We keep their legacies alive. We keep their memory alive.”

So much so that Kendrick faced what he calls the most difficult decision of his life after Baker left under pressure and the NLBM asked him to come back and take over in 2011.

His dilemma was less because of the hurt from before than because of what the responsibility meant.

“It was really more about the fear of failure: What happens if you come back and this doesn’t work?” he said, laughing and adding, “Because as you well know, people don’t remember what led to the situation. All they remember is the guy who was there when the ship sank.”

But even as he tried to remind himself these sorts of decisions needed to be rational, he succumbed to the heart when he heard Buck in his head saying “come on back home.”

So he figured it wasn’t coincidence that his first year back was marked by the opportunity to celebrate Buck’s 100th birthday, a springboard to getting the museum out of the red.

That was followed in 2012 by a boost from connecting with the All-Star Game in Kansas City … and in 2013 with the screening here of “42” … and in 2014 and 2015 with the Royals in the World Series.

He tries to draw from what he learned from a man he considers his “guiding light” and feels “monitoring my steps.” In times of trouble, he tries to be more “Buck-like.”

Kendrick isn’t sure there’s a better compliment than someone seeing him on the street and saying, “Oh, you’re Buck’s guy.”

“I was never afraid to walk in Buck’s shadow,” he said. “For me, it’s an honor to walk in Buck’s shadow.”

Get out of his shadow? Turns out you can find yourself just fine within it — and make diamonds for your own legacy, too.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.