Negro Leagues history extra special in KC

Members of Urban Youth Academy discuss impact of anniversary

August 14th, 2020

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum houses many vital elements of baseball’s past. But just a few steps from the museum is a place that features baseball’s present and future.

The Kansas City Urban Youth Academy (UYA) opened in 2018 in the historic 18th and Vine District, just outside the museum and only two blocks from where the Kansas City Monarchs once played their home games. The UYA is a state-of-the-art baseball, softball and education facility where underserved youth ages 6-18 get the opportunity to grow as athletes and as people.

With Major League Baseball celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Negro Leagues on Sunday, we asked three people associated with the UYA to share their experience of learning about the Negro Leagues’ past while pushing the sport forward in the present day.

Isaiah Evans, 15-year-old Kansas City UYA participant

When I first started playing baseball around 5 years old, I liked it, because my team was full of people I knew, like my cousins and friends from school. It was a comfortable setting. I played flag football, soccer and basketball, but, when I got around second grade, that’s when I started sticking with baseball.

To be honest, I’m not the tallest person. In basketball and football, you need height and size. I just didn’t like those sports. I was the smallest on the court at all times. In baseball, you don’t need height. I play shortstop and second base, so I look up to Tim Anderson, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez. I’m pretty fast, and I put the ball in play a lot. I’m flashy. I make a lot of diving plays like those guys.

I was like 9 when I found out they were opening [the UYA]. It was pretty exciting to know you’re going to be playing on Major League-style fields and turf. We had only played on dirt, and the field was not kept well. Having [the UYA] has meant a lot, because we always have enough time to practice and they make us feel comfortable. I actually just applied to a leadership program where they put us with a mentor and we do community service and stuff like that.

I’ve been to the Negro Leagues Museum tons, and what stands out is, every time you go, it’s more information that you didn’t see the last time. There’s always something new to learn there. Like, the last time I went, I learned that females were allowed to play in the Negro Leagues. I never knew that before.

I know it’s cliché, but Jackie Robinson is a big inspiration to me. And Satchel Paige, because he never let his age stop him from being great. I know we’re not going through the same thing as those players today, but, in some ways, it is the same. We don’t get treated fairly by umpires, and we always have to take the hard route. But we don’t make excuses. We have to play the same game as everybody else.

Darwin Pennye, Kansas City UYA executive director

I was cognizant of the Negro Leagues at an early age because of my father. He was older when he had me, so he was born in 1920, when the Negro Leagues were founded. He saw Jackie Robinson’s barnstorming All-Star team play down in San Antonio, and we had a family member who actually played against Jackie Robinson. Those were things implanted in my mind as a youngster growing up in the south, and in Texas, in particular.

When I look at my experience playing baseball [into the Minor League levels with the Pirates and Expos], I got to play at the highest level you can play without reaching the big leagues. My entire college career [at Texas State], I never played with more than one African-American on my team, so I never had the camaraderie that [Negro Leagues players] had. But many of them never got the opportunities that I did. I stood on their shoulders and got a chance to showcase my talents against the best, all over, wherever they were from. I think, at the end of the day, those guys played for a simple love of the game. And when I look at myself, that’s what I played for, too. I didn’t start playing in my backyard because of riches or money or scholarships. It was just a love of the game. If you were able to go to heaven and have a conversation with those guys, I bet the only thing they’d ask is to line us up in the backyard and have a game.

I saw a traveling exhibit of the Negro Leagues Museum for the first time in 2000, and became enamored with it. I had seen Buck O’Neil with his great stories during the Ken Burns “Baseball” special and was always interested in those who came before me. It wasn’t until 2017, when I moved here to Kansas City, that I had my first experience of the actual museum and got the opportunity to meet [museum president] Mr. Bob Kendrick. The first event I attended here in Kansas City, I told Mr. Kendrick, “I don’t want to go into the museum until you can take me on a full tour.” Because he’s one of the great storytellers of our generation. So me and him walked through the museum one day and talked and shared stories, and it only heightened my interest for Negro League baseball. I got a real sense of its importance not just as African-American history but as American history.

The guy I became fascinated with was Rube Foster. He’s the lost guy in Negro League lore. He was a genius. All of these guys get credit for being great, cerebral people of the game. But this guy was way ahead of his time -- not only as the organizer of the league but small ball as we know it. His famous fadeaway pitch showed Christy Mathewson how to throw a screwball. He was a mastermind not only of what it took to be successful on the field but to be the leader of what it took to be organized as a league and be successful off the field.

Where we are located is considered hallowed ground. When you look at the history of Negro Leagues baseball and the African-American culture and community, this is like Gettysburg. It’s a turning-point facility. We look at it that way. To be a stone’s throw across the street from the Paseo YMCA, where the Negro National League was chartered, and to be at historic 18th and Vine, where baseball’s greats met up with entertainment greats, is incredible. To house that history and to start a new history is a special opportunity for myself, our staff and our community.

We embrace what could be the next generation of baseball leaders, and it's important for our kids to understand that message so that, when they play, it’s not just a game, but it’s an opportunity to see how proud of a past we had long before football or the NBA. Baseball was the central sport in the African-American community. It’s a shame that it’s gotten lost in all of the commercialism of youth sports today. We’ve had an opportunity to reach more kids than we initially thought. We’re not trying to recreate the Negro Leagues, but we are trying to reintroduce the sport at a grassroots level, free of the financial burden that has been placed upon the game. If we grow some high-level athletes out of it, great. But we’ve got to grow high-level citizens.

Markus Smith, 15-year-old UYA participant

I was probably five or six years old when I started playing Tee Ball. The field we played on is the one that became the Academy. Four or five years ago, our coach told us they were building something special there and that we’d be able to practice there. When it opened, they had an indoor field and the cages inside, along with the field outside, and it was cool that we were able to use it. Even if it does rain or is cold outside, we’re still able to practice, if we need to, and use that equipment.

I used to play basketball, too, but I’ve started to just focus on baseball. I play third base and pitch, and I catch every so often. I just like how close I am with my team. I like that aspect of baseball more than basketball. We were able to play over 40 games this summer. When we were 12, we were able to travel to Cooperstown, N.Y. That was a really great experience.

The Negro Leagues players are the guy who opened up baseball for people of color. They opened this up, and I’m playing around the same place where [the Kansas City Monarchs] were. I’ve been to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum often on summer camp trips. There’s this little field that has statues of all the best players. That’s the best part of the museum. It’s so cool to think about how much they must have loved to play the sport, because it wasn’t easy for them. And without them, the game around the world wouldn’t be the same. There wouldn’t be as many African-Americans playing the game.