Hank Aaron. Bob Gibson. Willie Mays. Bobby Bonds. Big Poppy. Derek Jeter. “Oil Can” Boyd. Fernando Valenzuela. Kirby Puckett.
Imagine not being able to see these baseball players on the big stage. What if baseball had remained segregated, leaving only whites to play at the Major League level?
If not for The Brooklyn Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson in 1946, that could have happened. Baseball, and America, would have been worse off if 42 (Robinson’s jersey number) hadn’t signed that contract.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City pays homage and celebrates the successes of African-American players during the days of segregation.
Negro Leagues Baseball started in the late 1800s. Moses “Fleetwood” Walker was actually the first African-American to play Major League baseball. He was the lone African-American player with the Toledo baseball squad.
Walker’s playing career ended when baseball put up its color barrier. Some “credit” Cap Anson with the color ban. Anson was a white ball player. He was very influential at the time. He said he would not play baseball with a black player.
In the 1880s, baseball adopted its ban against African-American players. That would last until 1946, when the Dodgers signed Robinson and assigned him to the Montreal minor league team. Robinson broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues, when he made his debut with the Dodgers in 1947.
During the early years of African-American baseball, various leagues came and went. There wasn’t any continuity to them. Players could change teams and leagues over night, if another team offered more money, etc.
That came to an end in 1920, when a group of owners and influential people met at the Kansas City YMCA, near 18th and Paseo. Rube Foster, a former player, led the meetings to create the Negro Leagues Baseball. NLB offered black leagues a centralized leadership and management.
The Eastern Colored League formed in 1922. Its six teams included: Atlantic City (which left the National League), Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York Cuban Stars, Hilldale Daisies and New York Little Giants.
The Negro Leagues saw some of the greatest players to ever play the game, regardless of race. Satchel Paige was considered among the best pitchers to take the mound in any baseball association.
Josh Gibson was considered one of the best hitters of all-time. He was referred to as the “black Babe Ruth,” according to ESPN.com. Gibson didn’t get the chance to play in the Major Leagues because he died in 1947 at the age of 35. He played on two of the better known Negro Leagues teams – Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs.
The Negro Leagues Museum honors these players and many more in its exhibits. The museum is a must-see when visiting Kansas City. It explores the history of Negro Leagues baseball through film, photographs, articles and memorabilia. The tour starts with a short documentary film on the history of Negro Leagues Baseball. It’s narrated by actor James Earl Jones. It’s a detailed look at the leagues and players.
It tracks the history from the early days – after Anson and other white players refused to play on the same field with players of color – to the “Glory Days” of black baseball and finally to the end – after African-Americans signed with teams with the Major Leagues.
After establishing the color barrier, black players needed to find an outlet for their baseball skills. The Negro Leagues gave them that opportunity. Teams were located throughout the United States.
During the “Glory Days” of Negro League baseball, teams averaged 20,000 fans at games, while the white Major League teams were averaging 8,000. The games were considered social events. People dressed up to attend games.
Negro League Baseball was considered the first professional sports league to have night games.
The museum has exhibits that show life on the road for the players. It amazes me that a group of people had to stay in certain hotels, eat at certain restaurants and just hang out in certain places, all because of the color of their skin. The museum, I believe, covers the issue of racism is a professional, civil manner.
The museum has a collection of baseballs autographed by players and coaches affiliated with African-American baseball.
My favorite exhibit at the museum is the field featuring the All-Stars of Negro Leagues Baseball. A statue stands at each position and features the name of the player considered the greatest at that spot.
Behind the plate is Josh Gibson. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
On the mound is Satchel Paige. He was one of the best pitchers in either league. Paige was the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball history when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1947 at the age of 42. Paige was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.
We learned that the father of Lisa’s step-grandpa actually caught for Paige as a teenager. He was watching practice one day, and Paige asked him to warm him up. Imagine, being a kid and being asked by one of the best players to wear the uniform to help him warm up.
Other “All-Stars” included: Cool Papa Bell (left field), Oscar Charleston (center field), Leon Day (right field), Buck Leonard (first base), John Henry Lloyd (second base), Judy Johnson (short stop), and Ray Dandridge (third base).
The team is managed by the great Buck O’Neil. O’Neil is a Kansas City legend. He played and coached for the Kansas City Monarchs. Afterward, O’Neil worked as a scout for the Chicago Cubs and the Kansas City Royals.
He was a civic leader in Kansas City. He loved the game. He was present at Royals games at Kauffman Stadium. Following his death in 2006 at age 94, the Royals recognize civic volunteers, etc., by sitting them in his old seat. The Royals have a statue of O’Neil inside the theater of their Hall of Fame. People are encouraged to “shake” Buck’s hand as they exit the theater. Most people do it.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum gives baseball fans a look at a different path of history. The museum takes about 1-2 hours to visit. Every minute is worth it.
For more information on visiting the NLBM museum, visit their website at www.nlbm.com/.
Disclosure: The visit to the NLBM was sponsored by the Kansas City Visitors Bureau. All views and opinions are mine.