Bitten by 'Buck Bug,' Kendrick exudes passion for Negro Leagues

February 24th, 2022

While attending Park College in Parkville, Mo., in the early 1980s, Bob Kendrick, who was on a basketball scholarship, was contemplating a career in broadcast journalism.

But as fate would have it, Kendrick didn’t become a journalist, and his hoop dreams ended during his freshman year after he broke his foot. He instead parlayed his passion for Negro League baseball into a career, and while doing that became a master storyteller of all things pertaining to Black baseball, dating back to the early 20th century.

“I’m always thinking as if no one knows anything about the story,” Kendrick said via telephone. “I got to make them fall in love with it the way I fell in love with it. That’s where the energy and the passion comes from.”

Kendrick shows his expertise at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located in Kansas City on East 18th Street, between Vine Street and Highland Avenue, just across from the Gem Theater.

Kendrick, 59, is president of the museum, and by listening to his stories, one would think he actually witnessed history on the diamond. He knows everything about the career of Buck O'Neil, a co-founder of the NLBM, and often reminds people that O’Neil once managed the Kansas City Monarchs and knew where to find amateur talent.

O’Neil, some may not know, was the one who signed Joe Carter and Lee Smith to their first professional contracts, when all three were with the Cubs.

Kendrick will also remind people that Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson introduced night baseball in 1930, five years before the first night game in the Major Leagues.

Like most baseball fans, Kendrick heard of Negro League legends such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, but he had no idea about the scope, magnitude and history presented on and off the field until 1993, when he was working for the Kansas City Star.

That year, Kendrick had worked his way from the composing room to the promotions department, and while in promotions, he put together a campaign for NLBM’s traveling exhibition. It was a success.

“We drew some 10,000 people to come down to see that exhibition. That’s when I got really introduced to the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said. “I fell in love with it right away. I wanted to learn as much as I could and I didn’t want to keep it to myself. I wanted everybody else to feel the way I felt about it. It was an awakening to me. I was just like the people who come to the Negro League Museum now. How could I not know this? Here I am, a baseball fan and didn’t know it.”

Kendrick then started to get to know legends from the Negro Leagues such as O’Neil, Monte Irvin and Don Newcombe. Kendrick was like a sponge, absorbing all of the information that he could. He simply kept his mouth closed and his ears wide open, and it also helped that he read a lot of books on the leagues.

“Once you get bitten by the ‘Buck Bug,’ it’s a wrap,” Kendrick proudly said. “You just wanted to be on Buck’s team. Like everybody else who seemingly met Buck, you fall in love with him. You fall in love with the charisma, the passion, the dedication that he had for wanting to make sure that people wouldn’t forget [about the Negro Leagues]. When you are around that kind of charisma and energy, it’s infectious. I just wanted to be on Buck’s team and do whatever I could to help position this museum for growth.”

Kendrick expects a big year for the NLBM. Since Jan. 6, the first U.S. Mint Coins honoring the Negro Leagues have been on sale. The coins are being minted in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, which started in 1920 and ended in 1960. According to the United States Mint's website, Public Law 116-209, which authorized the commemorative coin program, coins are required to be emblematic of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and its mission to promote tolerance, diversity and inclusion.

The coins will draw attention. For example, one gold coin has the likeness of Rube Foster, the founder of the Negro Leagues. It has his signature on the coin and the inscriptions are “NEGRO LEAGUES BASEBALL,” “IN GOD WE TRUST,” “2022” and “LIBERTY.” The coin can be purchased for $674.

There is a silver coin which has a depiction of a pitcher in mid-throw with the baseball in the foreground and baseball stitching as a border. That coin is going for $74. The coins honoring the Negro Leagues can be bought via the U.S. Mint website.

In conjunction with O’Neil, Bud Fowler and Minnie Miñoso being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 24 in Cooperstown, N.Y., they will also be prominently featured at the NLBM.

O’Neil was a great first baseman and manager for the Monarchs and later became the founder and chairman of the NLBM as well as a legendary ambassador for baseball. Fowler was a barrier breaker. Not only did he play and manage Black baseball teams during the turn of the 20th century, he was also one of the first African Americans to play professional baseball (in the Minor Leagues) with white players during the 19th century.

Showcased by the museum is a handwritten letter Fowler sent to White Sox owner Charles Comiskey in April 1908. This letter was written after Fowler’s playing career ended, congratulating the White Sox on winning games in the Northeast. The Fowler letter was acquired because of the support of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, who made a joint $1 million contribution to the museum in February 2020.

As for Miñoso, he not only made his mark with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League, he had an impact in the Major Leagues, having played most of his career with the White Sox.

Miñoso is part of the “Beisbol Exhibit” at the Museum. It celebrates the relationships between the Negro Leagues and Spanish-speaking countries around the globe. The NLBM dedicated the exhibit to Miñoso after he passed away in 2015. The exhibit will be traveling around the United States in '22.

This April marks the 75th anniversary of the breaking of the color barrier in the Major Leagues, starting with Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers in 1947. The NLBM will launch a traveling exhibition called “Barrier Breakers.” The plan is to take the permanent installation at the museum and convert it into a traveling exhibition. As the first Black player to integrate with the White Sox in 1951, Miñoso will be part of that story.

The NLBM is building the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center at the Paseo YMCA, where the Negro National League was founded on Feb. 13, 1920. Kendrick is hoping the center will open in November, when they plan to have a Hall of Fame celebration for O’Neil in Kansas City.

“[This year] could potentially be one of the biggest years in recent museum history,” Kendrick said. “It was bolstered by the voting [of] Buck O’Neil into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Now we are planning a major Buck O’Neil Hall of Fame celebration to do exactly what Buck wanted us to do if he got there in 2006. That would be to create a platform that would ultimately raise money to support his museum.”

How much longer will Kendrick remain at the NLBM? He doesn’t know. Kendrick hopes the museum can sustain itself for years to come.

“I still enjoy it. I still love it,” Kendrick said. “But at some point, I know it’s going to pass me as well and it’s going to be time for someone else to come in with new energy, new ideas, to take the museum even higher … when I turn over the helm.”