The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM), located in Kansas City, Missouri, was first established back in 1990, originally functioning out of a one-room office. The museum has since grown in size, currently housed in a 10,000 square foot facility, in the heart of the KC Jazz district.
For the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, its main purpose is to preserve the history of African-American baseball, by continuing to provide those who visit with insight into the Negro Leagues. Not wanting to duplicate the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the NLBM acknowledges all Negro League players, instead of singling out the ones who had the biggest overall impact.
The most unique portion of the museum is the Field of Legends. A baseball diamond commemorating 10 of the first Negro League players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, for their Negro Leagues careers, the Field of Legends is made up of life sized bronze statues, of the players as they would have been seen on the field:
Martin Dihigo in the batters box, Josh Gibson behind the plate, Buck Leonard at first, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd at second, William “Judy” Johnson at short stop, Ray Dandridge at third, Cool Papa Bell in left field, Oscar Charleston in center field, Leon Day in right field and Satchel Paige on the mound.
President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick, took the time recently to answer some of my questions:
1.) Unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, which honors the best to ever play the game, the NLBM honors all Negro League players, regardless of their career statistics. Why did the NLBM decide to go about it that way rather than just include those players who had the biggest impact in the negro leagues?
It was far more important for us (NLBM) to preserve, celebrate and educate the public to a forgotten chapter of baseball and American history than it was to focus only on the stars of the Negro Leagues. The story of the Negro Leagues has never been properly documented in the pages of American history books, and collectively we felt that a museum dedicated to the entire story would have the most impact. The story itself is much bigger than the game of baseball. Baseball is merely a premise for more grandiose story of economic empowerment, leadership and ultimately the social advancement of America. It’s an all-en-composing history lesson. Our visitors not only witness the rise and subsequent fall of the Negro Leagues but they are able to simultaneously parallel the social rise of America.
By the time we established, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, through its Veterans Committee, had already started to recognize the exploits of some of the Negro Leagues biggest stars, so there was no need to duplicate or replicate what the Hall was already doing. The late Buck O’Neil was very passionate about the fact that there had already been enough separation in the game, and that the Hall of Fame was the proper place for all the people who made great contributions to our sport. So, as an institution, we became advocates for those who played in the Negro Leagues for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Of course, there was no greater advocate for inclusion than O’Neil.
2.) Since the museum’s opening in 1990, how has it grown in both physical size as well as the amount of historical information it provides on the history of the negro leagues?
We established the NLBM in a tiny, one-room office located in the historic 18th & Vine Jazz district in 1990. The late Buck O’Neil and Horace Peterson (who also established the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City), along with other former Negro League players living in the area, literally took turns to pay the monthly rent to keep those hopes and dreams of some day building an institution that would pay tribute to this inspiring and important chapter of American history. At that time, we had a few artifacts collected, but we knew from the onset that it would be the story that would drive this project. In November of 1997, we moved into our current home in the Museums at 18th & Vine (the American Jazz Museum is also a part of the complex), and now offers 10,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space. Negro League players and their families have generously donated items for display that helped bring the story to life and we’re constantly on the hunt for other pieces to add to our collection.
3.) Who’s the biggest name (baseball player, or general celebrity) to have ever visited the NLBM?
It’s tough to narrow it down to one, because we’ve been fortunate to welcome so many amazing celebrities through the years, including two American presidents in Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and other dignitaries such as: Retired Gen. Colin Powell and the First Lady Michelle Obama; legendary sports stars such as Jim Brown, Oscar Robinson, Barry Bonds, Frank Robinson, Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith and Kareem Abdul Jabbar; entertainers such as Geddy Lee, Harry Belafonte, Billy Dee Williams and Laurence Fishbourne. But my personal favorite was getting the opportunity to tour my idol, Hank Aaron. Mr. Aaron, of course, played in the Negro Leagues in 1952 with the Indianapolis Clowns before signing with the Boston Braves.
As a kid growing up in Georgia, I was, and still am, a big Braves fan. His epic chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record is still a milestone of my childhood, and when he hit the record-breaking home run, I remember circling the bases with him in the living room of our house and not being able to sleep that night because I was so excited for him. I met him for the first time in Denver, CO at the All-Star Game in 1998. The next year, MLB was celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Mr. Aaron’s breaking of Ruth’s record and in partnership with the Kansas City Royals, we were able to arrange a tour of the NLBM. Buck O’Neil was out of town and I drew the assignment of touring my idol. It’s the only time I’ve ever been nervous giving a celebrity tour. Afterwards, I joined Mr. Aaron and his wife, Billye, for Gates BBQ. I still consider it to be my greatest day in baseball!
4.) What’s something that a lot of people don’t know about the history of the negro leagues that you feel they should?
That they successfully operated for 40 years (1920-60). Most people assume that after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier that the Negro Leagues surely would have ended soon after that historic occurrence. It took MLB 12 years before every team had at least one Black player, with the Boston Red Sox being the last to integrate when the club signed Pumpsie Green in 1959. By 1960, the Negro Leagues ceased operations.
5.) Staying on the same general topic, nearly everyone knows who Jackie Robinson was, with many baseball fans having heard of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Who are some of the lesser known players that played a big role in the history of the negro leagues?
You’re right; Paige, Gibson and Cool Papa Bell became mainstream names from the Negro Leagues, but there were so many great players that most fans have not heard about. Guys like:
Wilbur “Bullet” Rogan: Rogan began playing in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1920, and was one of the League’s first superstars. He was a legendary pitcher who earned his nickname “bullet” for his blazing fastball. Rogan was a tremendous athlete and when he wasn’t pitching he often hit clean up in the Monarchs batting order and played the outfield. He led the Monarchs to the inaugural World Series title in 1924. Rogan is now rightfully enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Oscar Charleston: Buck O’Neil called Charleston the “greatest baseball player he had ever seen.” Charleston was a do-it-all center fielder who began playing in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis ABCs. He excelled in every facet of the game and the old-timers in the Negro Leagues say that he was “Willie Mays before we ever knew who Mays was.” He combined the defensive of abilities of Tris Speaker, the tenacity of Ty Cobb and the bat of Babe Ruth, into one dynamite package.
Hilton Smith: Perhaps the greatest pitcher few people know anything about. Smith was a star pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs who was somewhat overshadowed by his charismatic teammate, Satchel Paige. Smith was every bit as good. The quiet, reserved Texan won 20 games or more in 12-consecutive years for the Monarchs, and was 6-1 in exhibition games against Major Leaguers.
Martin Dihigo: Nicknamed “El Maestro”, Dihigo was born in Cuba and is the most versatile player in baseball history. He could play all nine positions, and play them well. Dihigo is the only baseball player to be enshrined in five different countries’ baseball Hall of Fames: Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic and United States.
6.) What’s your personal favorite portion of the museum? Why?
The Field of Legends. Naturally, I’m biased, but I think it is one of the most compelling displays in any museum anywhere in the world. The Field of Legends is a mock baseball diamond that houses 10 of 12 life size bronze sculptures of Negro League greats, cast in position as if they are playing a game. The statues on the field represent 10 of the first group of Negro League players to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame for their Negro Leagues careers. The exhibition flows around the field, so our visitors can see the field, but they can’t walk out among those legendary baseball players until they’ve learned the history, at which time you’ve earned the right to “take the field” with 10 of the greatest baseball players to ever put on a uniform.
7.) What advice would you give to first time visitors of the NLBM, when it comes to how they should go about their self guided tour?
If possible, try to allot at least 90 minutes for the tour so that you can take in our featured videos in the Grandstand and Diamond Theaters. You could easily spend an entire day because there’s a great deal to enjoy. Artifacts, multimedia displays and fascinating text panels that set the tone for what America was like, but also triumphantly quantifies the passion, pride, perseverance that America’s unsung baseball heroes demonstrated in the face of adversity that ultimately changed our game but more importantly, changed our country.
Big thanks to Bob Kendrick for taking the time to answer my questions.
You can follow him on Twitter: @nlbmprez