Legacy of Negro Leagues forever profound
Joint gift by MLB, MLBPA assures important history will continue to be told
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was, at first, a small, unmarked room in the Lincoln Building in Kansas City. If visitors ever came by, which they never did, there were only a few scraps of memorabilia to see -- a handful of black and white photographs, an autographed baseball or two, a baseball bat that may or may not have had any connection to the Negro Leagues. Most of these were kept in a drawer.
"Where is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum?" a young volunteer named Bob Kendrick asked as he walked into the room.
"You're standing in it," the Museum's first executive director, Don Motley, said.
The rent was $200 a month. The few dreamers who believed in the idea -- Horace Peterson, Buck O'Neil, Motley, Alfrred "Slick" Surratt, Connie Johnson and a handful of others -- used to take turns paying the rent.
The key word there is "idea." That's all it was then -- an idea with a few hundred square feet of office space.
In 1990, Peterson wanted to create something to commemorate the Negro Leagues. Peterson had dedicated his life to preserving African-American history and fighting for civil rights. Peterson marched in Selma. He went to jail for the cause in Arkansas. He went up to O'Neil, who had played and managed in the Negro Leagues, and said, "We should start a Negro Leagues Baseball Hall of Fame."
"No," Buck said. "It should be a museum. We already HAVE a Hall of Fame."
I have always loved that part. He never wanted the Negro Leagues Museum to be separate from the rest of the game. From the very start, O'Neil understood that the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum should be a bridge and not a wall, that the Negro Leagues' story should be heard by everyone who loves this great game.
The bold audacity of early Negro Leaguers like Rube Foster, Oscar Charleston and Bullet Rogan created a league. The remarkable play of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell and so many others opened eyes and minds across America. Jackie Robinson played in the Negro Leagues and then burst through in Brooklyn. Willie Mays and Henry Aaron began in the Negro Leagues.
This power and wonder of their story, Buck and those dreamers believed, still matters.
Few believed that then. The Negro Leagues were forgotten, ignored, maligned. When Buck tried to raise money to build a real museum in those early years, he heard again and again how those Negro Leaguers couldn't really play, and how that shameful time when dark-skinned men could not play in the Major Leagues would be better left behind. He refused to believe it. The dreamers kept going until a museum was built on the corner of 18th and Vine in Kansas City. They kept the thing going through good years and rough ones.
And then, Wednesday morning, there was MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark giving $1 million to the museum and talking about how this powerful story is still new and vibrant and can help change things.
"I realized," Manfred said, "that whenever you try to rebuild something, like rebuild African-American participation in our game, you need a great foundation. That's always the starting point. And it occurred to me that the foundation of our effort with respect to African-American players had to be an effort to make young African-American players understand the Negro Leagues."
That young volunteer who first walked into the Negro Leagues Baseball room in 1993, Kendrick, is now president of the museum, and Wednesday was an emotional day for him. Then again, I can tell you that every day at the museum is an emotional one for Bob. We have been close friends for about 20 years now, and keeping this museum going has been his quest, his cross, his burden, his honor. It has not been easy.
For one thing, museums are just a tough business. For another, the decision to put the museum on the corner of 18th and Vine in Kansas City -- just around the corner from the YMCA where the Negro Leagues were formed in 1920 -- was sentimental and right, but it hasn't made things easy for drawing visitors and raising money.
And there are still those lingering voices of people who say the Negro Leagues didn't matter, it wasn't the Majors, the baseball was subpar and so many other things that entirely miss the point.
"The Negro League history," Clark said, "is indeed our game's history."
Yes, that's the point. The money donated will certainly help the museum a great deal in the years to come. But as Kendrick said, the money is the least important thing that happened Wednesday. The most important thing is the connection between the Museum and MLB, this whole new chance to tell the Negro Leagues story for years and years to come.
See, more than 100 years ago, when African-Americans and dark-skinned Latin Americans and others were denied the right to play in the Majors, they created their own league. They kept that league going, through sheer will and innovation and baseball brilliance, for decades, through Jim Crow, through a Great Depression, through a World War, all the way until Jackie Robinson and then beyond, for 15 more years, until every big league team had a black player.
"The amazing thing is that this story that began with alienation," Kendrick said, "ends up bringing us closer together. Their triumph inspires us even now. I know that Buck is looking down and seeing the Commissioner of Baseball at the Museum, talking about keeping this story alive. And he's just smiling."