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At a Moment of National Reckoning, We Remember Baseball’s Negro Leagues

At a Moment of National Reckoning, We Remember Baseball’s Negro Leagues

Jan Mercker

Barack Obama and Others Join in Tipping Their Caps to the Negro Leagues

Last month, former President Barack Obama tipped his Chicago White Sox cap in honor of the 100th anniversary of the founding of baseball’s Negro Leagues.

Obama’s moving Instagram tribute was the centerpiece of the #TipYourCap2020 campaign organized by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in celebration of a moment that changed baseball — and American history. As national leaders, professional athletes and other celebrities jumped on board, the gestures offered a glimpse of hope during challenging times. 

“Our country needed this campaign, and baseball needed this campaign after the very difficult and challenging negotiations that they had to get the sport back and the civil and social unrest going on in the country,” said NLBM President Bob Kendrick, who organized the campaign. “We needed something that would unite us, and if it took the winning spirit of the Negro Leagues, that’s something we take great pride in.”

In 1920, a small group of baseball managers met in a downtown Kansas City YMCA to launch the country’s first official league for African American players. That league and the other Negro Leagues that followed lasted 40 years and produced some of baseball’s greatest players. Kendrick and the NLBM are on a mission to keep that slice of American history front and center. 

“It’s that spirit that drives us now”

This summer, crowds at baseball stadiums around the country were supposed to tip their caps in a salute to the Negro Leagues on a Saturday in June. Kendrick and his staff had big plans for large-scale events nationwide in what should have been a banner year for the museum both in terms of visibility and fundraising efforts. 

In February, NLBM got its anniversary campaign rolling with a star-studded in-person event in downtown Kansas City. Guests included Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, Frank White Jr., a former Kansas City Royals star who is now Jackson County, Missouri county executive, Royals owner John Sherman and Missouri’s Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe.

“We rolled out our yearlong celebration plan,” Kendrick said. “We were off to a flying start. Less than a month later, everything came to a screeching halt.”

Barack Obama - Negros Leagues
Field of Legends is the centerpiece exhibition at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, featuring life sized statues of notable players. [Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum]

In a year when COVID is closing museums around the country and taking a huge toll on revenues for non-profits, NLBM has had to shift gears in a big way. But Kendrick is taking inspiration from those players and team owners who launched a league of their own when segregation created roadblocks for Black players.

“As I tell people all the time, if you’re going to be a steward of this story, you cannot wallow in self-pity. The players in the Negro Leagues never cried about social injustice. They went out and did something about it,” Kendrick said. “It’s that spirit that drives us now.”

Tip your cap

On June 29, NLBM launched the online Tip Your Cap to the Negro Leagues campaign with four U.S. presidents tipping their caps: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. They were joined by Colin Powell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King. Astronaut Chris Cassidy even tipped his cap from the International Space Station

“Today I’m tipping my hat to all the giants in the Negro Leagues, from Satchel Paige to Toni Stone and so many others. Their brave example, first set 100 years ago, changed America’s pastime for the better — opening it up for new generations of players and fans alike,” Obama announced in a Instagram post.

Barack Obama - Negros Leagues

Kendrick is pushing planned in-person events to 2021 with its revamped Negro Leagues 101 campaign. For Kendrick, in light of national efforts to promote social justice, NLBM has a bigger role than ever.

“When we first built this museum, we wanted to build an attraction because we needed to get people interested in a subject matter that they had no access to prior. It’s not in the pages of American history books,” Kendrick said. “Our goal was to build an institution so when these difficult conversations, particularly around race and sports occurred, there’s no better place for these conversations to be held than at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.”

Breaking barriers

This year’s anniversary celebrations recognize the day in February 1920 when a small group of  independent Black baseball team owners met in Kansas City to create a league of their own. In the late 1800s, Black players had successfully played on integrated teams. But they were kicked off professional teams with the rise of Jim Crow segregation laws in the early 20th century. Independent Black teams began to form, but play was informal and loosely organized. That is until Andrew “Rube” Foster, owner for the Chicago American Giants, gathered eight Midwestern managers at Kansas City’s  Paseo YMCA.

“Out of that meeting came the birth of the Negro National League, the first successful organized Black baseball league,” Kendrick said.

Barack Obama - Negros Leagues
Satchel Paige All-Stars exhibition team traveled in style to play post-season games on the West Coast against Major League All-Stars in the late 1940s. [Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum]

After that meeting, regional leagues were formed around the country. The Negro Leagues eventually rivaled and — in some cities surpassed — the Major League Baseball in popularity and attendance, Kendrick said. Teams brought economic development to cities as marketing-savvy managers packed stadiums in vibrant Black neighborhoods.

The Negro Leagues began to decline after 1945, after the Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs and the integration of Major League Baseball began. But Negro League baseball continued until 1960. For Kendrick, the start of the Negro Leagues was the beginning of an important process of breaking down barriers in sports and American life.

“Sports has been such a tremendous barrier breaker in our society because it’s that one place in our society where we see each other up close and personal,” he said. “And what we find out is that we have far more in common than we do differences. But it also, I think, teaches us to embrace our differences and not run from them.”

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‘A Civil Rights museum — through the lens of baseball’

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, a private nonprofit, opened in 1990 in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine district. It’s in the heart of what was once the city’s African American community during segregation. The museum was the brainchild of former Kansas City Monarch John “Buck” O’ Neil, the first African American coach in Major League Baseball. O’Neil died in 2006, and the historic Paseo YMCA, where the initial Negro Leagues organizational meeting took place, is now owned by NLBM. It operates as the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center after extensive renovations.

Barack Obama - Negros Leagues
After playing in the Negro National League, Satchel Paige made his Major League debut at the age of 42 with the Cleveland Indians in 1948. Huge crowds would gather to watch him pitch.

“We are a civil rights museum. It’s just seen through the lens of baseball,” Kendrick said. “It is triumph over adversity, and I think you need that story as well…If you want to understand the Black experience in this country in its entirety, it cannot just be me being sprayed by water hoses, having the dogs released on me, the police brutality of the Civil Rights movement that unfortunately has continued to manifest itself into this current time. You also need to be exposed to my success stories…Through the lens of baseball and this very courageous story of the Negro Leagues, that’s what we exemplify against the backdrop of American segregation.”

A downtown revival in Kansas City

For Kendrick, the NLBM is both a national touchstone on the role of sports in the Civil Rights movement and an important part of a cultural revival in downtown Kansas City.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick

“18th and Vine was the epicenter of Black life in Kansas City,” Kendrick said.

The museum was part of revitalization efforts in the 90s and now part of a “cultural complex” that includes a vibrant arts and music scene. The three-block radius near 18th and Vine includes the American Jazz Museum, The Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey dance troupe, the historic Mutual Musicians Foundation — which still hosts jazz jam sessions — and the Black Archives of Mid-America. Major League Baseball has opened an Urban Youth Baseball Academy next to the NLBM and the O’Neil Education Center.

“It’s a very progressive city…It’s cosmopolitan and as culturally enriched as any city in the country,” Kendrick said. “…That’s something that we take great pride in.”

For Kendrick, this rich hub of African American culture is a natural tourist draw and has the potential to play a role in a national dialogue on race and justice. As Barack Obama and others tip their hats to courageous Negro League players, the museum is ready to inform and inspire.

“When you stop to think about that winning spirit, that is the American spirit…While America was trying to prevent them from sharing in the joys of her national pastime, it was the American spirit that allowed them to persevere and prevail,” Kendrick said. “They absolutely built a foundation for civil rights in our country…As a society, we are continually challenged with how do we do better, and I think that’s what this is all about.”

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