Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: More than just the History of Baseball

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DISCLAIMER:My concern in this post is that I do not relate the sheer incredible-ness of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, MO, doing some unintentional injustice to not only some of the greatest baseball players of all times, but also to President Bob Kendrick, who has done an amazing job at gathering historical artifacts of this time in American history and in American baseball. Note that I said history and baseball. The museum is about so much more than just baseball. It’s a look into the history of America too. Even for those who aren’t baseball fans, this museum is worth a trip for the historical and cultural education.

 

20150610_160600As I entered Kansas City on June 10, 2015, I realized that once I checked into my conference and then into my hotel, there would be a good chance I could visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum after all, the number one item on my KC “To Do” list. I’d forgotten about the time change from Eastern to Central. After getting my check-ins squared away, I shot over to the Museum (KC is the home of the legendary Kansas City Monarchs, in case you didn’t know). I entered a world I had only read of in books and seen documentaries and movies that played with facts.

 

Growing up in and around Detroit, I’d seen my fair share of racism. I’d heard stories from my grandfather about how hard it was for the electric company to do their work in southern Indiana due to the foothold the KKK had down there. I know a few stories about racism. But I had no idea there was a “Gentleman’s Agreement” that refused entry of any non-white person onto the field of “white” baseball.

Today, we hear stories of these times, and President Obama uses the “N Word” for emphasis when discussing racism that is still prevalent, but we can’t imagine these same things going on today. Without the African American, Latin American and Asian presence in baseball today, we’d have pretty much nothing. Or perhaps we would. We’d just have the Negro Leagues, since their games tended to have higher attendance and managed to put “white ball” out of business.20150610_162615

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The museum, if you’ve never been, follows the Negro Leagues through time. Literally. The path laid out in front of visitors progresses through the years in chronological order. Enclosed in this small museum is over 100 years of history, not just baseball history.

And on my first trip, I missed a great deal.

As you must too, I watched the 15 minute film about the Negro Leagues, and I traveled through time, but I missed a great deal of the subtlety. I missed, for instance, that the chicken wire you see to your left as you enter the museum and look out upon the field is meant to help the visitor understand the separation of the races, particularly the separation of black fans from the white fans during this time in American history.

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This I missed because, perhaps, I was in a hurry to see it all. It took me an hour and a half the first time. Yet I missed a lot.

On the first day of my Advanced Placement scoring, I tweeted Bob Kendrick, President of the museum, to see if he’d be willing to stay open late for a group of AP readers. He graciously agreed, and we set up a time. Once there, he surprised the entire group of AP readers (upwards of 100 showed up) with a private tour of the museum.

Bob’s tour highlighted all of the information that passed me by during my first visit only five days earlier. I’d seen the images. I’d read all the information. But Bob’s enthusiasm for the Negro Leagues and knowledge of the history of these players brought the entire museum to life in a way I never would have been able to appreciate without his guidance.

When you go, you too will learn how these players are responsible for many of the things we take for granted when watching a baseball game today. You’ll discover that the Negro Leagues were the first and/or best. Just that. They were the first and/or best. In pretty much everything. If not the first, then they had a tremendous influence on the way the game was later played after integration.

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Their players, largely due to Rube Foster, slid into base with more frequency (mainly because he fined them if they didn’t), that this became a mainstay of modern baseball. They had the first20150610_161913 night game under lights. They took lead-offs, virtually unheard of in the white leagues. They stole with more frequency, and had a much higher success rate as a result of lead-offs. They had better pitchers (Satchel Paige not withstanding). They had better batters (like, but certainly not limited to, Josh Gibson). And what seemed to surprise all listening to Bob: The Negro Leagues players were more educated than their white counterparts, many were even college educated. And, perhaps the most impressive first: The Negro Leagues had female players.

To top this off, the Negro Leagues were not only better at baseball and more innovative and open-minded; they also drew larger crowds than their all-white counterparts. The popularity of the Negro Leagues was flat out undeniable. Yet these men and women were viewed as animals, non-humans, vermin essentially. I’m thinking the racism is/was a result of envy and fear more than anything. We tend to lash out at the things we envy, fear or don’t easily understand.

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One of the most interesting things and stories behind the exhibits is one about a rocker, a rock star when you go. Just as I did, you’ll get to see Geddy Lee’s balls. Again, literally. The lead singer and bassist of Rush, Bob told our group, bid on a huge lot of signed baseballs, signed by Negro Leagues players. Upon winning the lot, Lee donated around 200 of his balls to the museum. Some of the names on those balls: Henry “Pork Chops” Aaron (a.k.a., Hammerin’ Hank), Cool Papa Bell, Willy Mays, Josh Gibson, among the rest.

But times have changed.

Today, we still hear of racism, as President Obama declared; regrettably, it still very much exists. But I like to think, perhaps naively, that we are well beyond the racism and hatred the players of the Negro Leagues endured. Having to sleep in their buses because there were no black-owned hotels in the area. Eating crackers and peanut butter because they couldn’t sit in a restaurant to eat. And so on. These things no longer exist.20150616_192737

To think, today we accept all races into baseball. We expect it. Players on the field aren’t even a skin color anymore. They are the team jersey they are wearing. It’s now about team colors. Not player color. We have switched our color focus from skin to team colors, and we now express our color preference through our fan gear. We exclaim, “I bleed blue and orange (Detroit Tigers), and hate the blue and white pinstripes.”

And that’s progress.

What makes baseball the best sport in the world? It brings together people of all nationalities, all ethnicities, all socio-economic backgrounds, all genders, all religions. It bonds together all people. Today, we often see a rich person sitting next to a poor person at the game, and that economic difference is practically ignored. All that really matters in baseball today are the colors the person next to you is wearing.

Colors. Ironic perhaps that we’ve shifted from skin color to team colors.

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Usually, those colors just end up being a conversation starter; we have to know the loyalties of others, not their racial background. We are baseball fans first and foremost. An African American can sit next to a white person. Do we even see their skin tone at ball games? No. Not really. We look to see which team they root for. Their colors, not their color. If it’s not our team, then we might rib them, or vice versa. Skin has become all but irrelevant in baseball. Thankfully. Now it needs to become that way in America.

20150616_191130The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum does a fantastic job of showing how once we finally reached the point of full integration, our baseball truly became our National Pastime, a statement I credit to Bob Kendrick.

To extend this idea: Today, baseball represents the true essence of America. It is the only sport that is a true “melting pot”, just as America was conceived. We watch citizens, nationalized citizens, those on green cards, all ethnicities, all socio-economic levels play ball every single day for about eight months. Baseball is nearly integrated completely (a woman is the only thing missing, and that gender barrier looks to be on the verge of being crossed soon too). No other sport in the country can boast that much diversity.

The struggles we see on the field represent those we see every day in our “real lives”. Arguments, greed, cheating, teamwork, joy and sorrow hard work and determination, and so on. It’s all there on the field. It always had been. Only now, we are integrated into the very essence of America as I said: The Melting Pot.

It’s a journey through history and baseball, not just the history of baseball.

It’s about America.

In all of its glory and horror.

What the museum shows, even if not the original intent, is that now, after centuries of hatred:

Baseball is America.

 

One last piece of advice: Do not call it a “Hall of Fame.” The Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown.