Jackie Robinson loved the ribs at Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q.
In his Negro Leagues days, Robinson was one of the many members of the Kansas City Monarchs who would frequent the famous joint at 19th and Vine, which stayed open late to accommodate the players after games.
“You see those guys with the big cars and tall hats, and the good-looking women," one-time Ol’ Kentuck counter worker Ollie Gates told Kansas City television station KSHB earlier this year. "There was something for you to look forward to.”
Gates’ family business managed to survive long after Robinson left the Negro Leagues for the Major Leagues. But it took a name change -- to Gates Bar-B-Q -- and a couple of location changes to become the thriving chain it is today.
The truth is that the Negro Leagues -- and so much of the economy surrounding them -- died a relatively swift death after Robinson’s iconic debut with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. While Major League Baseball is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Negro Leagues and their rich heritage on Sunday, the leagues themselves -- and the Black businesses they propped up with their well-attended games and traveling parties -- were the collateral damage of integration, the costs of progress.
“Integration,” says Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, “was good for the soul of our country. It moved us in ways, socially, we never, ever dreamed possible.
“But it was devastating economically for the African American community.”
* * * * *
Baseball carries not just an entertainment purpose but a communal one. Though it is not reflected in this strange 2020 season featuring cardboard cutouts and piped-in crowd noise, the allure of the ballpark generally fosters day-of-game spending at other area businesses.
That was true in places like Newark, Detroit and Memphis, where the local Negro Leagues teams were popular attractions. And much like traveling musicians or railroad porters, the Negro Leagues teams -- whether visiting cities that had franchises or, as became common, barnstorming in smaller towns and playing local teams -- became a reliable revenue source for Black-owned hotels, too.
“In most towns, if there was no hotel, they would do a series of rooming houses -- three over here, five over here,” says Negro Leagues researcher and author Phil Dixon. “And this was all Black people making money.”
The financial success of the Negro Leagues fluctuated over the course of their existence, reflecting national unemployment trends and a nationwide decline in the number of Black-owned businesses in the 1930s. But in the first half of the 1940s, when the country was enjoying rising income levels and living standards, there was a resurgence in support. In his book, “Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game,” author and researcher Rob Ruck states that some Negro Leagues teams around this time were assessed as being as valuable as Major League franchises.
But the players -- and the African American community -- understandably aimed to see an interracial MLB.
“No matter what they had done in building the Negro Leagues, no matter how great the Negro Leagues were, the world still said the highest level you could play this game was in the Major Leagues,” says Kendrick. “So there was always this aspirational mindset about what would happen if our players got the opportunity to play side by side with the white players. And when Jackie becomes the chosen one, this was the equivalent to the first man landing on the moon. But I don’t know if anybody anticipated the detriment.”
* * * * *
The detriment came quickly. While in certain cases Negro Leagues franchises temporarily benefited from integration by selling their best players to Major League and Minor League teams, many others had their players pilfered. And all saw their attendance begin to drop as the eyes and dollars of the Black audience shifted to the bigs.
While the Major Leagues integrated, the Negro Leagues, for all intents and purposes, disintegrated.
“There just was not enough time or disposable income to support both,” Kendrick says. “Some Midwest teams were able to hang on for a while, but those teams that were out East that were close to Major League Baseball teams died almost instantly.”
So, too, did the idea of having the Negro Leagues serve as a developmental system for Black prospects, as such a course would have ultimately run counter to the goal of complete integration. The Negro National League folded just one season after Robinson’s debut, and the Negro American League’s experimentation with female players and white players (yes, integration went both ways) could not prevent its inevitable demise by the end of the 1950s.
This major change in baseball was a piece of a larger cultural shift in the United States in the middle of the century. As Society for American Baseball Research author Japheth Knopp noted in his essay, “Negro League Baseball, Black Community, and the Socio-Economic Impact of Integration,” the so-called “white flight” to the suburbs and the slow but steady desegregation of businesses, schools and other public accommodations hindered the economic viability of African American communities.
“Black baseball, like many other African American-owned businesses,” Knopp writes, “now had to compete against white-owned businesses for Black clientele and with less talent, capital and cultural privilege than their white counterparts.”
Desegregation was necessary -- and long overdue -- in baseball and in the country, at large. But it came at both an economic and a psychological cost. At a place like Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q, Black patrons were embraced, and Black baseball stars like Robinson were treated like royalty.
This was not the case in white-owned baseball and business, where African Americans gained access but not necessarily acceptance.
“We asked for integration, but what we wanted was equality,” Kendrick says. “Those two things are not the same. And so sometimes I think the old adage -- ‘Be careful what you ask for, you might get it’ -- rings true, to some degree, when we look at the plight of the Negro Leagues.”
Even when Black players who reached the Majors were finally allowed into the hotels where their white teammates were accustomed to staying, some longed for the sense of community that the Negro Leagues and the surrounding economy had provided.
“Some of the players didn’t want to stay in the hotels [with their white teammates],” Dixon says. “There was an economy where Black people would house Black people. They had better meals, they were around families, and you got to know the people in the community better because you’re actually a part of the community.”
* * * * *
In many facets of American life, the fight for equality continues to this day. This summer, it spilled into the streets, as the Black Lives Matter movement achieved widespread support.
So while baseball integration was an important first step, it was ultimately only that -- a first step. And as evidenced by the neighborhood that once housed the original Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q, it did come with a cost to Black communities. By the 1960s, what once had been a vibrant art and commerce area had become a ghost town, with abandoned buildings and boarded-up windows.
Poetically, it was the return of the Negro Leagues -- in the form of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum -- that served as a cornerstone of a comeback for what is now known as the 18th and Vine District. The museum opened at that intersection -- one block from the former Ol’ Kentuck site -- in 1990, with the hope that it could not only preserve and celebrate the legacy of the Negro Leagues but that it could spark a rebirth of the jazz, blues, baseball and barbecue that had once thrived in that area.
“Thirty years later,” Kendrick says proudly, “this museum has done exactly what the Negro Leagues once did. People are living, working and playing at 18th and Vine again.”
And with a Gates location just a few blocks away, they’re still eating those ribs that Robinson loved.