Passion, Pride, and Perseverance: the Enduring Story of the Negro Leagues Museum

When I was a little girl, my father played Strat-O-Matic with me and my sister to teach us about baseball. It’s how I learned about Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, scoring plays, and all the different ways a batter can reach first base: depending on who you ask, there are seven, eight, or twenty-three different ways, for the really specific baseball aficionado.

It’s also how I first learned about the Negro Leagues. We had dozens of different sets of cards for teams like the 1927 Yankees and 1967 Red Sox, but I distinctly remember asking my father why there was a set that looked different from the rest. He said, “That’s the set for the Negro Leagues,” and explained to me that before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball, African-Americans could only play in their own league.

The story of the Negro Leagues added a new layer to my fascination with baseball history. After Jackie Robinson, many other former NL players became MLB players: Hank Aaron, Dank Bankhead, Minnie Miñoso, and Willie Mays, to name a few of the greatest players in Major League history. Had Jackie Robinson failed, we may never have heard of any of them. You might not even know that the Negro Leagues even existed.

When I speak to Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick, I’m immediately uplifted. I feel his smile radiating through the phone; his positivity is inspiring, especially given the reason for our call. Amidst rising racial tensions in our country, the Negro Leagues Museum has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Last month, vandals broke into the newest part of the museum, the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. They cut a water pipe, flooding on the lower two floors of the building. Repairs will be costly and time-consuming; the demolition and cleanup will likely take two months, before they can even begin to restore the building. Kendrick tells me that it was clearly a “very malicious and very deliberate” act. Authorities doubt any connection to the suspected arson of Negro League/MLB legend Satchel Paige’s former home weeks prior, but Kendrick and I concur that the crimes were connected in hateful motivation.

I did my research before our call, but Bob Kendrick is a fund of information. We talk about the building itself, one rich with African-American history and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. In its former life, it was the all-black Paseo YMCA, the place where eight team owners met to found the Negro Leagues in 1920, and where many famous black athletes spent time. “Joe Louis trained in that building… Jackie Robinson spent time in that building,” Kendrick says. The location for Buck’s center was chosen for reasons dating back nearly one hundred years, and the building’s historical significance continues to plays a large part in the story the museum tells today.

I first connected with Bob Kendrick after I wrote an article about Mamie Johnson, the female black pitcher in the Negro Leagues. She wasn’t allowed to try out for the All-American Girls league, and MLB definitely wasn’t going to have her. But the Negro Leagues were inclusive of men and women. Kendrick mentions my article and adds, “it’s a league that was born out of exclusion… these athletes create their own way… and that is the American way.”

Jackie Robinson’s story gets told frequently, in film, literature, and in the ‘42’ day game played MLB-wide each year, when the only number retired by the entire league is worn by every player for an inspiring, yet sometimes confusing game. After all, it can be hard to keep track of your players when they’re all wearing 42, but that’s the point.

Meanwhile, John Jordan ‘Buck’ O’Neil spent his entire playing career in the Negro American League. He was one of the brightest stars in the league for twelve seasons, most of which were spent with the Kansas City Monarchs. Buck would have been Robinson’s teammate if he hadn’t been serving in the Navy when Jackie played with the team in 1945. He then worked as a scout before becoming MLB’s first black coach with the Chicago Cubs in 1962. Until he passed away in 2006, Buck was the architect and longtime chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Unlike Jackie Robinson, Buck never played in the Major Leagues, and he isn’t in the Hall Of Fame. Most children don’t grow up hearing his name. But Buck O’Neil has long been an example of the kind of person you can be if you choose to live your life with love rather than hate, and embrace all people, as the Negro Leagues did.

The museum is a point where the past, present, and future converge to teach you important lessons. This is the part of the conversation where Kendrick’s passion reaches its peak: “I talk about the fact that the Negro Leagues Museum may be more important today than ever before… levels of hate that we thought we had all moved beyond, and it is traumatizing… you would think that we would be better than that.”

Kendrick acknowledges that the museum is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. People do not like to be reminded that they are ignorant. Like all of America’s history with racism, the need for the Negro Leagues is a shameful reminder of exclusion. Unlike slavery or the Civil Rights movement, however, the story of the Negro Leagues is largely unknown. Kendrick says that often, museum visitors “are amazed by what they learn… and dismayed to just be learning it now.” I’m not surprised when he tells me this; my own grandmother told me recently that she hadn’t heard about the league until my grandfather told her about it in the sixties, by which time it was all but defunct. When I asked her where she thought Jackie Robinson had come from, she said that usually, people only spoke about his college days as a 4-sport athlete at UCLA.

But the public’s general ignorance about the Negro Leagues only serves as motivation for Kendrick. “Nobody knows anything about the Negro Leagues, and that’s exactly why we’re doing it; we just felt like people should know.” He couldn’t be more right. For nearly 30 years, the Negro Leagues Museum has shed light on one of the darkest parts of American history in hopes that people will grow from the education they receive there. Former United States presidents have visited, as do many athletes, including MLB players and team officials when they come to town to face off against the Kansas City Royals. Hundreds of students come each year. Through community events, special programs, hundreds of photos, baseball artifacts, films, and computer stations, the museum preserves history to teach us not to repeat history. In this day and age, it should be required for every American.

Kendrick says the Buck O’Neil Education & Research Center is “first and foremost, an expansion of the Negro Leagues Museum” that will, among other things, have an innovative education program focusing on the math and science of baseball.

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NLBM President Bob Kendrick

In a childlike moment of vulnerability, I ask Kendrick how he can stay so positive in the face of everything. It’s in that moment that I see why he is truly the perfect person to lead this charge. His response to my question? “Something good has already come out of this.” Of course, he’s right. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done to repair the center. Repairing our fractured country seems like an insurmountable task. But the Negro Leagues were created because of the racist and sexist exclusions by Major League Baseball and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, or as Kendrick puts it, “the American way… rising out of the ashes.”

Fifty-two years ago today, Ted Williams was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Never one for the personal spotlight or rabid media attention, he used his induction speech as an opportunity to advocate for the inclusion of Negro Leagues players in Cooperstown. “I hope that some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way could be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they were not given the chance,” Williams told the crowd.

The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues is less than two years away. It’s scary to think about what the world will look like in 2020. Kendrick is far more optimistic about our country’s fate than I am, and determined to do his part to save us all. “We refuse to let hate stop us from doing what we know we’re supposed to do,” he tells me. I don’t think anything could stop him.

At the end of the day, Kendrick is just ready to move forward from this ordeal. He’s excited to rebuild and for the center to open so the museum can carry out Buck’s vision with “passion and pride and perseverance.” After all, the museum’s success is the best form of retribution. As we say our goodbyes, he tells me, “We don’t want to be defined by the setbacks. I’d rather be defined by the comeback.”

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