Published February 13th, 2020 at 6:00 AM7 minute read
A Kansas City museum devoted to triumph over adversity will celebrate two anniversaries this year.
Today, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will mark the centennial of the Negro National League, founded on Feb. 13, 1920 in Kansas City. The organization provided stability and permanence for several African American teams then operating across a segregated America.
Also in 2020, the museum’s organizers will mark another monument to permanence – their own.
Museum founders filed articles of incorporation in September 1990. Today, despite its own moments of adversity, the museum stands 30 years later as one of Kansas City’s most high-profile nonprofits – showcasing an inspiring story.
A new documentary detailing that story, “A Century of Change: The Negro Leagues Centennial,” premieres on KCPT tonight.
The museum’s growth wasn’t guaranteed 30 years ago – or, for that matter, even 19 months ago
In June 2018, someone broke into the Paseo YMCA – the building near the museum where the 1920 organizing documents had been signed – and cut a second-floor water pipe.
The flood that followed ruined the first-floor space that had been recently renovated, representing the initial stage of the museum’s Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, named for the charismatic former Negro Leagues player and manager.
“It was one of the lowest points I think I ever have experienced,” Bob Kendrick, museum president, said recently.
“If it had just been a water pipe that had burst on its own, we would have had the same amount of damage. But once I realized that someone went in and deliberately and maliciously did this – that was the part that hurt the most.”
Yet, Kendrick resisted melancholy.
“Being a steward of this story, you know, you can’t wallow in self-pity,” Kendrick said, pointing to a nearby portrait of O’Neil.
“You would do a complete injustice to those players in the Negro Leagues who never cried about adversity. It just gets you more in that mindset to dust yourself off, get back up and get back out there, trying to make this situation better.
“It also gives you even greater resolve, because you don’t want the hater to have the last laugh.”
The research center remains unfinished.
“We believe it put us 18 months behind,” Kendrick said, adding he hopes to see it opened by the end of the calendar year. Meanwhile, a ceremony today inside the unfinished building will detail the museum’s planned centennial observance.
Almost 30 years ago, the museum’s 1990 nonprofit incorporation marked a local high-water mark for the tide of interest in the Negro Leagues that had been rising across the country for at least the previous two decades.
Some regard the 1970 publication of “Only the Ball Was White,” a history of the Negro Leagues by former New York newspaper editor Robert Peterson, as an example.
That book, according to former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, prompted many to consider whether some of those African American athletes prevented from competing in the major leagues deserved induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Former Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige became the first former Negro Leagues player so honored in 1971.
The following year New York journalist and author Roger Kahn published “The Boys of Summer,” a history of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers and its most celebrated member, Jackie Robinson – a member of the 1945 Monarchs – who integrated the major leagues in 1947.
That book, which has sold an estimated three million copies, helped make the Robinson – and Negro Leagues story, by extension – story mainstream.
The 1994 “Baseball” documentary by Ken Burns, shown on KCPT and other public television stations across the country, rendered O’Neil a national figure.
For the rest of his life O’Neil put his celebrity in service of the Negro Leagues’ legacy, presenting “Late Night” host David Letterman with a replica Monarchs jersey and generating nationwide publicity for the museum.
“We felt it was a worthy project,” said Phil S. Dixon, a Kansas City author who was one of the museum’s original 12 signatories in 1990 and today remains a member of its advisory board. “But as far as people knowing about the Negro leagues, I think we have only scratched the surface.
“There is still a lot of work to do.”
Today the Negro Leagues narrative represents a sprawling story and the museum devoted to telling it – sharing space with the American Jazz Museum at 1616 E. 18th St. – has only a finite amount of space where it can store research materials, such as its collection of archival photographs.
The new education center, once opened and outfitted, should make the story easier to access, said Raymond Doswell, the museum’s vice president of curatorial services.
Researchers determined to dig deeper into Negro Leagues history often have been found it useful to travel to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., or the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in upstate New York. The latter trip routinely involves a flight to Albany and a rented car to Cooperstown.
“I love going to the Giamatti Research Center Library at the Hall of Fame, but it takes about two days to get there,” Doswell said.
“Because of our location in Kansas City, we can be a nexus point of all things Negro Leagues.”
Researchers sifting through digitized newspapers for still-undiscovered details about the Negro Leagues often have found gold in the pages of African American newspapers like The Chicago Defender. While many years of the Defender have been digitized, Doswell said, some libraries allow greater access to that archive than others.
A fully outfitted research center, Doswell said, could bring such databases within reach of experienced researchers. And yet the facility could also serve those Kansas City area middle and high school students who prepare papers as part of the annual National History Day competitions.
“We have space enough now to modestly store the things we have,” Doswell said.
“But the new center will allow us to actually run our educational mission, which includes operating research facilities and also offering whatever support we can to schools and teachers across the community.
“Even though we have been around for 30 years, I feel we are still very much in our infancy.”
The museum’s 1990 incorporation followed the authorization the previous year of $20 million in public financing for the 18th and Vine District.
Museum founders soon occupied a small space in the Lincoln Building, standing on that intersection’s southeast corner.
Kendrick’s first affiliation with the museum dates to 1993, when as a senior copy writer with the Kansas City Star’s promotions department, he developed a marketing program for a Negro Leagues exhibit, “Discover Greatness.”
About 10,000 people came to the Lincoln Building to see it.
“That exhibit is still on tour today,” Kendrick said.
He continued as a volunteer in 1997 as the museum opened in its current location across 18th Street. Kendrick ultimately joined the museum’s staff as marketing director.
But the death of O’Neil in 2006 was followed by awkward times at the museum.
Kendrick, a candidate for executive director in 2008, did not get the position after a close vote of its board of directors. While he initially stayed on, Kendrick left in 2010 to become executive director of the Kansas City office of the National Sports Center for the Disabled.
He returned the following year as president, following the resignation of executive director Greg Baker.
Many high-profile moments followed.
Fox Sports, which broadcast the 2012 All-Star Game in Kansas City, presented a pre-game segment detailing the Negro Leagues and the 1920 Kansas City organizational meeting, narrated by actor Terrence Howard.
More film star face time followed in 2013 when actors Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman, the stars of “42,” the Jackie Robinson biopic, presented a Monarchs jersey from the film to Kendrick during its Kansas City premiere.
In 2015 – the museum’s 25th anniversary – it hosted a November gala just days after the parade honoring the Kansas City Royals following their victory in the World Series.
Two years later, Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball commissioner, and Tony Clark, Major League Baseball Players Association executive director, visited the museum to announce a joint $1 million donation.
Kendrick and colleagues hoped that a research center could welcome scholars in 2018.
Then came the vandalism that June.
“It absolutely broke my heart,” Kendrick said.
As news of the incident spread, more love came the museum’s way. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association jointly contributed $250,000 toward the building’s cleanup and restoration.
Last April the City Council approved an ordinance authorizing the museum’s donation of the Paseo YMCA to the city, which then will commit $1 million from the city’s one-cent sales tax for public improvements to restoring the building’s first floor and basement.
That transaction has yet to occur, said Kendrick, but he expects it will soon.
There will be several centennial events.
Today, “Black Baseball in Living Color,” featuring more than 200 portraits of Negro Leagues players by artist Graig Kreindler, will open at the museum.
The annual “Salute to the Negro Leagues” at Kauffman Stadium, a museum fundraiser, is scheduled for Sunday, May 17. The Kansas City Royals, who will be hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers, will be wearing the uniforms of Robinson’s 1945 Kansas City Monarchs. Since 2013 the salute also has included “Dressed to the Nines,” a tribute developed by the museum with local fans, urging spectators to dress in their “Sunday best.”
The centennial will conclude with the museum’s annual gala held November 14, honoring the month of O’Neil’s birth in 1911.
“This year’s 100th anniversary celebration may be the biggest thing that ever happened for this museum, along with our opening in 1997,” Kendrick said.
That reminds Kendrick of another round number.
He considers Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers – 50 years before the museum’s opening in its current space – as just as worthy a moment on the country’s civil rights timeline as President Harry Truman’s desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision in “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,” finding the racial segregation of public education unconstitutional.
“The whole crux of this year’s celebration is to help people understand the important role that the Negro Leagues had in the civil rights movement,” Kendrick said.
“Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier was the beginning of it.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City-based writer.