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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

The American experience's Robert Falkoff found out that there's a lot to learn when one goes inside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
By Robert Falkoff

Buck O'Neil sometimes can be seen at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Want to be whisked away on a time-travel journey? Interested in learning about a poignant chapter of American history in general and baseball history in particular? Do you love human interest stories of those who overcame huge obstacles and performed awe-inspiring feats?

If so, it's time to follow the lead of 55,000 visitors who toured the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. last year. I recently did just that. After parking the car near historic 18th and Vine, I was greeted by director of marketing and Negro Leagues historian Bob Kendrick, who graciously guided me on a personal tour of a multi-media Museum that features the sights and sounds which truly bring the Negro Leagues to life.

"What we've tried to do is make the Museum experience as if they are going back in time to an old ballpark," Kendrick said as we stood at the front entrance. "The sights, the sounds, the look, the feel ... everything was designed to replicate the feel of an old stadium."

We begin the tour by entering through the same type of old turnstile one would have passed through while attending a game in the Negro Leagues, which lasted from 1920 to 1960. In the stadium entrance area, you are immediately captivated by the sights of weathered outfield fences and the bright color schemes of the uniforms. There is a mix of nostalgia and technology that enables the visitor to envision what a Negro League game might have been like 50 or 60 years ago.


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Feature Lineup
Schedule/ Archive
Award winners
Jimmy Rollins and Juan Pierre accepted Legacy Awards last week from the employees at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. More>>

The motives
Branch Rickey had several reasons for signing Jackie Robinson to a pro contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Historian Steve Goldman has the details. More>>

Segregated Baseball: A Kaleidoscopic review
While the very existence of the Negro Leagues was necessary because of the racial divides in the United States, black baseball not only survived -- it excelled. More>

Traveling show
Barnstorming was common place in the Negro Leagues. More>

Off to the right side, you see a large, brightly colored board that illustrates just how large in scope Negro League Baseball was. The board shows that the Negro Leagues were actually six separate leagues that had more than 80 teams all told at one time or another over a four-decade span.

"This was a big business structure," Kendrick said. "It's important for our visitors to understand that Negro Leagues baseball was nothing like Hollywood portrayed it ... as some type of vagabond league. It was a thriving, business enterprise, the third-largest black-owned business in the country."

A map shows where the Negro League cities were clustered. All of the franchises were west of the Mississippi, with Kansas City the farthest team to the west. As you make your way into the stadium, you gaze through a window at the centerpiece of the exhibit, which is known as the Field of Legends. It's a mock baseball diamond that houses 10 of the 12 life-sized bronze sculptures of Negro League baseball legends.

"It's one of the most incredible displays, I think, anywhere in the world," Kendrick said.

The 10 on the field are positioned as if they are playing a game. While visitors get a glimpse of the Field of Legends by peering through old chicken wire, which would have been the backstop at a Negro League game, they cannot get to the field. That's purely by design, Kendrick explained. There's deep symbolism in this approach.

In 1999, Hank Aaron stood next to a statue of Satchel Paige while touring the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
"What we hope is that when our visitors see this display, they'll instantly want to go to the field," Kendrick said. "But, of course, we deny them the opportunity to get to the field, just as these athletes were denied the opportunity to play Major League baseball. We want our visitors to have to work their way to the field, ... learn their stories first and then be allowed to take the field with these great athletes. Eventually, you do work your way to the field, just as these great players eventually worked their way to Major League Baseball."

During the course of the tour, you learn that many of the greatest baseball players of all time never had the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. But there are many other focal points as well: The economic impact created by Negro League Baseball; the leadership levels that emerged because of Negro League Baseball and the ultimate socialization of America as Jackie Robinson was hand-picked from the Kansas City Monarchs to integrate the game of baseball.

"We believe that was the beginning of the modern-day Civil Rights movement in our country," Kendrick said. "When you put it all together, you have a story that is actually bigger than the game of baseball itself."

From the entrance area, you go through a tunnel that takes you to the Grandstand Theatre. The theatre features ballpark-like bleachers, seats about 75 adults and runs a 15-minutes film on the half-hour called "They Were All-Stars." The film is narrated by James Earl Jones.

"We recommend that our visitors start with the film," Kendrick said. "It really sets them up to go through and better understand what they are seeing as they make their way through the Exhibit."

After getting an overview from the film, visitors are ready to begin their walking tour that will ultimately lead them to the Field of Legends. The story of Negro League Baseball is told in chronological order, beginning right after the Civil War. A timeline runs completely around the Exhibit, offering baseball-related points of reference as well as historical reflections of what was happening to African-Americans at that particular juncture in the country's history.

"Not only are you able to come here and learn the progression of black baseball. ... you're also able to learn the social progression of our country simultaneously," Kendrick said. "We tell the story through a wonderful collection of photographs, artifacts and scripted pieces. If you like to read, it can easily take you three to four hours to go through the Exhibit."

Continuing on through the Exhibit, you come upon a display for Rube Foster, the father of black baseball. Foster had the vision to set up an organized structure for what would be Negro League Baseball. He also set the tone for a signature style of play -- fast, aggressive, daring on the basepaths.

"That was part of the reason why -- even during that era of segregation -- you saw black and white fans sitting side-by-side, enjoying the most exciting baseball being played in this country," Kendrick said. "How ironic is it that a league born out of segregation would become the driving force for social change in our country?"

Just ahead is a display on the beginning of professional baseball at night.

"They were playing night games in the Negro Leagues five years before they were playing night games in the Major Leagues," Kendrick said. "While our history books reflect that the first professional night baseball game was played at Crosley Field in 1935, our history books are wrong. The first pro night game actually took place in 1930 and it featured the Kansas City Monarchs."

The Museum has a collection of lifestyle exhibits, which document how important Negro League Baseball was to the African-American community. You are introduced to the Streets Hotel, a black-owned hotel which was located on the corner of 18th and Vine where the Museum stands today.

A replica of the Streets Hotel sitting room is on display. That's where, at any given time, you could find a great jazz entertainer or a great athlete during the heyday of the Negro Leagues.

"When black entertainers came to Kansas City, that was the only place they were allowed to stay because of segregation," Kendrick said. "At that time, 18th and Vine may have been the most recognized street in the world. It was jumping."

Next is "The Heyday" section of the Museum. It illustrates the golden years of Negro League Baseball, from 1933 until well into the 1940s when Robinson went to the Major Leagues. During those years, there was a heavy Latin American influence on Negro League Baseball.

"Players would go (to Latin America) after the season in the States and be treated like heroes," Kendrick said. "They would stay in the finest hotels, eat in the finest restaurants and then come back to the States and be treated as second-class citizens."

Clowns were part of Negro League Baseball, but a display at the Museum reveals that particular part of the league was much smaller than Hollywood has suggested.

"This is the facet of Negro League Baseball that Hollywood grabbed and wanted to portray as some kind of vagabond, vaudeville act," Kendrick said. "Hollywood twisted it into making people think this was what Negro Leagues baseball was all about. In essence, there was only one clown team that was part of organized Negro Leagues Baseball and that was the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns introduced mascots to baseball many years before the Major Leagues and were forerunners to the Globetrotters with some of their entertainment."

There's a wall in the Museum dedicated to the great pitcher Satchel Paige. There's a replica of an old-time Barber Shop. There are pictures showing the fashion that revolved around Negro League Baseball.

"This was the era of dress," Kendrick said. "Men wore their finest suits, women wore their finest dresses and hats. It was as much a social event as an athletic event."

The Museum takes you on to the World War II era, which would begin to signal changing times for Negro League Baseball.

"You had the irony of young black soldiers dying while fighting the same kind of injustice in another country that (they) were being asked to except here in the States," Kendrick said. "That really started the sentiment of the fact that if they could die fighting for their country, they ought to be able to play baseball in the Major Leagues in this country."

That led to Branch Rickey signing Robinson away from the Kansas City Monarchs. Visitors to the Museum will see a collection of pictures of the man chosen to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947.

"Was Jackie Robinson the best Negro Leagues player? No, not at all," Kendrick said. "That's one of our most commonly asked questions here at the Museum. Jackie was a very good Negro Leagues player. But there were Negro Leagues veterans who were certainly more skilled than Jackie Robinson."

That said, Kendrick quickly added that Robinson was absolutely the right man to take on such a Herculean task.

"He had all the attributes to handle the racial hatred he would have to deal with," Kendrick said. "Jackie had the mental toughness. He was married and had stability in his life. He had served in the military and was already a celebrated athlete because of his time at UCLA."

The Museum tour moves on to the Major League section. The focus is on players who went on to great success in the Majors, but owed their careers to the Negro Leagues, players such as Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella. This section also provides a point of reference for the great Negro League players who came before them.

"What would have happened if Josh Gibson had been given a chance to play in the Major Leagues?" Kendrick asked. "What would have happened if Satchel Paige had been there in his prime?"

Elsewhere in the Museum, you'll see the lockers of 18 former Negro League stars who are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The latest was pitcher Hilton Smith, who was inducted last August. There's a display of celebrity autograph baseballs from Museum visitors, including those of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. There's also the original tombstone of Paige, with a question mark by his date of birth.

"Satchel never really told his age," Kendrick said. "He was believed to be closer to 52 than 42 when he made it to the big leagues. Satchel was fond of saying 'Mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

Finally, you make your way to the Legend's Field. Each statue weighs about 400 pounds and feature such legends as Paige, Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell. Every three to four minutes, an automated light show comes on. The night lights come up to symbolize that night baseball started in the Negro Leagues. Visitors hear baseball chatter and listen to the starting lineups being announced.

On this day, a group of students from Denver are here on a whirlwind trip. They are studying Negro League Baseball, and Frontier Airlines donated a trip for the class to visit the Museum.

"They flew in this morning and will fly back this evening," Kendrick said. "It's one heck of a day trip."

Indeed. And one these students will likely never forget.

Note: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Monday. Adult admission is $6 and $2.50 for children 12 and under. Group rates are available with reservations.

Robert Falkoff covers the Royals for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.