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Bigger Than Baseball
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The lessons and legacy of Negro Leagues Baseball resonate beyond the diamond

What do the stories of ballplayers who faced persistent inequalities due to race teach us about leveling the playing field for everyone?

On a cool April evening at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium in 1974, Henry Aaron hammered an Al Downing fastball over the left centerfield fence and into baseball history. The blast moved Aaron ahead of Babe Ruth as the game’s all-time home run hitter. As Aaron circled the bases, 93 miles away in tiny Crawfordville, Georgia, 11-year-old Bob Kendrick shadowed the steps of his baseball hero, rounding the bases of a makeshift baseball diamond in his parents’ living room.

“The sofa was first base. Our TV was second base. We had another old couch that was third base and the recliner was home plate,” Kendrick recalled. “As my childhood idol was touching them all, I was touching them all, jumping for joy.”

Today Kendrick spends his days tracing the footsteps left by the baseball legends who played in the Negro Baseball Leagues. He serves as president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which sits in the middle of the Kansas City’s storied 18th and Vine district just blocks away from the Paseo YMCA where Rube Foster brought baseball team owners together on February 13, 1920 to form the Negro National League.  The league welcomed talented Black and dark-skinned Latino players who were excluded from playing Major League Baseball.

Kendrick came to the museum in 1993 as a volunteer to help with marketing and public relations. He was a lifelong baseball fan with a passing knowledge of the Negro Leagues. “I knew the names Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson. Most baseball fans have at least heard of those names, but I had no idea about the breadth, the scope, the magnitude that these leagues represented both on and off the field,” he said. “I fell in love with the story. I fell in love with the athletes who made the story.”

Walter "Buck" Leonard batting
The left-handed half of the Homestead Grays’ power hitting tandem, Buck Leonard paired with Josh Gibson to lead the Grays to nine consecutive Negro National League championships from 1937 to 1945.

A civil rights and social justice museum

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Kendrick knows that the legacy and lessons of the Negro Leagues resonate far beyond the baseball diamond. He sees the museum as a place where people can come together to have conversations about racism and social injustice. “The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum can help people identify, understand, embrace, and I hope appreciate the Black experience. This museum is a social justice museum. It is a civil rights museum,” he said.  “I want you to empathize with what has taken place and understand why we’re still fighting to be treated equally and not be marginalized. But I also want you to understand how we’ve had the wherewithal to overcome so many of these trials and tribulations as part of our journey. That’s what this museum is all about.”

When Jackie Robinson stepped on the field with Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he not only broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, but also ushered in America’s modern civil rights movement. The milestone came a year before President Truman abolished racial segregation in the U.S. Military, seven years before the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus, and sixteen years before Martin Luther King, Jr. led a March on Washington to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Through the years, Black athletes, including Robinson, Althea Gibson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Bill Russell, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Craig Hodges, Colin Kaepernick, and Brittney Griner have been at the forefront of racial equity and social justice movements.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum can help people identify, understand, embrace, and I hope appreciate the Black experience. This museum is a social justice museum. It is a civil rights museum.

Kendrick hears echoes of Negro League Baseball players in the voices of today’s Black athletes. “Sometimes when you take that stance, you have to understand that you’re going to walk in your conviction alone,” he said. “It fills me with tremendous pride to see these young athletes using their platform, using their voices to help try to bring resolution to some of the ills of our society. They are absolutely embodying the spirit of the Negro Leagues.”

Making a museum

The stories of Black enterprise, resilience, and athleticism came perilously close to being lost to history. The fledging museum opened in 1990 with former Negro League players taking turns paying the rent each month. Buck O’Neil held the group together and held to his vision for a museum that would honor every person who was a part of Negro Baseball. O’Neil played first base and managed the Kansas City Monarchs, generally regarded as the Negro Leagues’ premier franchise. After his playing days, with the color barrier broken, he was the first Black coach in Major League Baseball and, as a scout, he signed Ernie Banks and Lou Brock, who both had stellar careers that led them to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. With boundless energy and charm, O’Neil poured everything into advancing the museum. When asked why the museum mattered, he had a simple answer, “So that we would be remembered,” he said.

Kansas City Monarchs, 1921
A charter member of the Negro National League, the Kanas City Monarchs reigned as one of the best known and most successful professional baseball franchises. The Monarchs captured ten league pennants and recorded only one losing season during their entire association with the Negro Leagues.

O’Neil’s influence and inspiration are unforgettable. He held court at the entrance of the museum, telling stories, signing autographs, and playing catch with the boys and girls who visited. One of only five baseball players to ever be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Buck O’Neil died in 2006, a month short of his 95th birthday. It was the same year he was passed over when a group of stars from the Negro Baseball Leagues were chosen to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He took the slight in stride. O’Neil stood at the podium at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on the day he was spurned to speak on behalf of his fellow ballplayers and teammates who were headed to Cooperstown.

“To me it was the most selfless act in American sports history,” Kendrick recalled. “I didn’t know it was possible for people to fall more in love with Buck, but they did.” Seeing his friend and mentor denied his place in the Hall of Fame will always bother Kendrick, but he will never forget the grace O’Neil showed when confronted with another stinging injustice. “I’m still trying to be more like Buck, but it makes me mad every time I tell that story.”

Equal talent. Unequal opportunity.

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Historians, including Larry Lester, Phil Dixon, Andrea Williams, Layton Revel, and Japheth Knopp, along with master storytellers from the Smithsonian Magazine,, filmmaker Ken Burns, and authors Robert Peterson and Joe Posnanski, who wrote about the life and times of Buck O’Neil, have all detailed the exploits and impact of Negro League Baseball. Search “Negro Leagues Baseball” on YouTube, grab some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and settle in to binge watch a season worth of videos. Congress designated the museum as the “America’s National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum” in 2006. The privately-funded not-for-profit organization is one of a handful of one-of-a-kind cultural institutions considered to be a key city asset supported by the Kauffman Foundation’s Kansas City Civic funding strategy.

Much of what we know about Negro Leagues Baseball comes from Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball, the columns and commentary of journalist Sam Lacy, and accounts published in The Call in Kansas City, as well as the other newspapers serving Black communities around the country. These articles and box scores help validate the idea that Negro Leagues Baseball fans saw a dynamic and daring style of play, featuring players whose talents were equal, and in some cases, better than their Major League counterparts.  What they lacked in opportunity they more than made up for in skill. Barnstorming Negro League teams took on teams of Major League players as they toured the United States, including places where they were denied lodging and meals. They brought the sport around the world playing a series of games in Canada, Japan, Mexico and throughout South America. The League’s 1937 East West All-Star Game drew 50,000 fans to Comiskey Field in Chicago.

In Kansas City, church services let out early to give parishioners time to get to the major league ballparks rented by the Kansas City Monarchs for Sunday doubleheaders. If they were lucky, they could see Lena Horne sing the National Anthem or Louis Armstrong throw out the first pitch before a game. The league, which was formed to level the playing field, welcomed women like Olivia Taylor, Effa Manley, and Minnie Forbes as team owners and in key front office roles. Innovations introduced batting helmets and shin guards for catchers. Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson added portable light towers to introduce night baseball in 1930, a full five years before Major League Baseball’s first night game.

I don’t think we realized what we were losing when we lost the Negro Leagues. We asked for integration. What we wanted was equality.

The rise and fall of Black economics

When Kendrick tells the story of Negro Leagues Baseball, he takes you back to the street corners along 18th and Vine and 12th and Vine in Kansas City. During its heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s, this was the crossroads of Black cultural life, enterprise, and entertainment. It’s where Negro League Baseball served as the centerpiece for successful Black-owned restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, stores, barbershops, banks, and insurance companies. “Within a 13-block radius, Black folks had everything they needed. The music was alive and businesses were thriving,” Kendrick said. “The Negro Leagues were an incredible catalyst that sparked economic development in so many urban communities across this country. Wherever you had successful Black baseball, the likelihood is that you had thriving Black economies.”

The prosperity generated by the Negro Leagues wouldn’t last. Rube Foster had envisioned creating a league that was so formidable that Major League Baseball would be compelled to merge with Black baseball’s powerhouse franchises. “He thought he would force Major League Baseball’s hand to expand,” Kendrick said. Instead, once the color barrier was broken, Major League teams welcomed only a handful of Black players. The most talented young players joined Major League teams with little or no compensation coming back to Negro Leagues teams. With baseball fans now able to watch the best Black athletes on their favorite Major League teams, Negro Leagues Baseball began to fade from the American landscape. “When we lost the Negro Leagues, we saw the Black economy start to erode. I don’t think we realized what we were losing when we lost the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said. “We asked for integration. What we wanted was equality.”

A century to celebrate

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Kendrick and the Negro League Baseball Museum team saw 2020 as a chance to tell the story of the Negro Leagues in a big way. The onset and spread of the coronavirus closed the museum for several months, and the events Kendrick’s team had arranged to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Negro League in ballparks around the country faded away. The lost summer was a heartbreaking setback, even for the typically upbeat Kendrick. “By no stretch of the imagination was this the year we had in mind. I was a little bit disenchanted because so much was riding on this year,” he said.

The disappointment didn’t last long. The museum was able to reopen following strict contract tracing standards and coronavirus protocols. Major League baseball returned to play in empty ballparks and the day to honor the Negro Leagues with teams all wearing the museum’s Centennial patch was set for August 16. Kendrick’s day began with an appearance on a Korean Baseball League game at 5 a.m. and he went on to appear on a steady stream of virtual interviews on sports networks and baseball game broadcasts for the next 17 hours. “I finally got a chance to exhale about midnight,” he said. ”When I crawled in bed that night, I was filled will such pride and joy to tell the story of the Negro Leagues. The Kansas City Monarchs once said in one of their promotions that they were the talk of the town all over the world. That was the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on August 16.”

Tip your cap to the Negro Leagues

Jose Maria Fernandez, Cuban Stars
José Maria Fernández came to the United States and joined the Cuban Stars as a catcher. He went on serve as player and manager with the New York Cubans, guiding the Cubans to the Negro League World Series Championship in 1947.

Before the summer was over, the museum took one more swing for the fences. They had planned for players and fans in stadiums to pay tribute to the past by tipping their caps to the Negro Leagues. When that fell through, Kendrick, Posnanski, and Dan McGinn teamed up to plan and promote a virtual campaign. It was a viral home run. Little League baseball players, and Presidents Obama, Clinton, Bush, and Carter, all posted videos tipping their caps to the Negro Leagues. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, Bob Costas, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, and The Temptations tipped their caps, and even astronaut Chris Cassidy tipped his cap from the International Space Station.

With the year winding down, Kendrick and his team are pitching ideas for a “Negro Leagues Baseball 101” promotional campaign next year to celebrate 101 years of the museum and the fundamental lessons of Negro Leagues Baseball. They will move forward with fund-raising efforts to convert the Paseo YMCA into the future Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. “We want to continue to create a better understanding of the value of diversity, inclusion, and equity in our country,” Kendrick said.

Our heroes inspire us

Like the men and women who packed Muehlbach Field and Municipal Stadium in Kansas City wearing their Sunday best to watch the Monarchs play, Kendrick dresses to the nines to represent the museum. No matter how many times he spins a tale he can make you believe he’s telling it to you for the first time. The stories flow in easy rhythm with a cadence that adds drama and just enough of a Georgia lilt to feel comfortable.  There is a cool calm about him. Except for that one day in 1999 when the museum celebrated the 25th anniversary of a baseball milestone. It was the day the Kansas City Royals invited Henry Aaron to town to honor him. Kendrick found himself walking alongside his childhood idol touring the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with Aaron and his wife Billye. “I was a nervous wreck,” he said, “the first time I’ve ever been starstruck.”

The visit touched all the bases, taking Aaron back to where his baseball career began as a member of the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues and Kendrick back to his days in Crawfordville. After the tour, they ate Gates Bar-B-Q together and talked baseball on the mezzanine of the Gem Theater across the street from the museum. “It just doesn’t get any better than that,” Kendrick said. “We’ve had so many incredible people tour this museum, presidents and first ladies, dignitaries, and sports heroes, no disrespect to any of them, but they’re not Henry Aaron.”

Photos courtesy of Raymond Doswell, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.