By Bill Beggs Jr.
Kansas City— A century ago, the United States were anything but united. Society was divided by black and white. Jim Crow laws deemed that “coloreds” had to use different restrooms and water fountains, sit in the balconies of movie theaters and back seats of buses, and avoid restaurants and public accommodations that were plainly designated for “whites only.” Education for blacks was only available in “separate but equal” institutions.
Only white men played major league baseball, until a brave athlete named Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by joining the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1947.
Robinson didn’t just appear out of nowhere. He already had been a star player for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.
Blacks began their first professional league in 1920. At the outset they’d barnstorm from town to town for interracial games, a sort of circus attraction. But over the years the teams became serious business, creating robust economies for black neighborhoods from Chicago to New Orleans to New York. Hotels catering to fans and teams were built. Still, in some towns players would have to bunk with black families. Or they’d sleep on the bus.
A teammate of Robinson’s was John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, first baseman, who became the Monarchs’ manager the year after Robinson’s departure. Born in 1911 in rural Florida, O’Neil lived almost half his life in a segregated society. There were only four high schools for blacks throughout the state; he stayed with relatives in Jacksonville until he graduated and finished two years of college. His baseball career started in 1937 with the Memphis Red Sox.
O’Neil lived through the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement, passing away just two years before the first black man was elected president. But up to the day he died at 94, O’Neil never took his eye off the ball. He was the prime mover for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM), which from its humble 1990 beginnings has become a Kansas City destination in its own right, and a unique venue for meetings and events.
At first the museum had a one-room office in the Lincoln Building in the city’s jazz district, and it wasn’t definite the organization would be able to keep the lights on, recalls Bob Kendrick, NLBM president.
Now the museum shares a building with the American Jazz Museum in the 18th and Vine Historic District. It’s a good fit, Kendrick points out, as black ballplayers and jazz musicians tended to have a mutual admiration.
NLBM itself features 10,000 square feet of exhibit space. Many after-hours events are staged in the common area the two institutions share.
One NLBM exhibit often doubles as a meeting space unlike any other: The Field of Legends, a mock baseball diamond with a life-size bronze statue of a star ballplayer at each position. Satchel Paige, who joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948, is on the mound. James “Cool Papa” Bell, considered by many the fastest man in the game, is in center field. Ray Dandridge is at third. (All three men are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. In 2007, the Hall of Fame named a lifetime achievement award for Buck O’Neil.)
The action on the Field of Legends is forever frozen at the moment a batter steps up to the plate. The diamond creates an aura that can be a little unnerving at first, Kendrick admits, especially for an event attendee who has settled in at a table.
“You may turn your head and notice there’s a player looking right over your shoulder,” he says. The Field of Legends will host its first wedding in November 2013; the bride and groom, both avid baseball fans, agreed it would be a great spot to “jump the broom,” he says.
Once blighted, NLBM’s historic neighborhood experienced a multimillion-dollar revitalization in the late 1990s that also gave the nearby Paseo YMCA a facelift. Years ago, the YMCA was the only place in the city where black people could go for a swim, Kendrick says, noting that support for the building’s present restoration came from
white and black donors.
Once the old YMCA is transformed into the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center next year, the NLBM will quadruple in size. Its mission of researching, documenting and displaying a rich slice of American history will intensify.
“We’re excited at the opportunity to create a formal research center and a dynamic event facility that will draw a lot of interest from many people, as well as strengthen our international focus,” Kendrick says.
Bob Kendrick, president
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
1616 E. 18th St.
Kansas City, MO 64108-1610