Ever since I read the book “Only The Ball Was White” as a young baseball fan in the early 1960s, I have been intrigued by the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues and its stars such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.
So it was with great interest that I spent an afternoon in the Kansas City section of town near the lyrical intersection 12th Street and Vine, where the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum presents a wonderful duet with the American Jazz Museum for tourists of all kinds. While Major League baseball teams no longer offer a single ticket admission to doubleheaders, one ducat gives you entry to both attractions. The two museums certainly complement each other because the Negro stars of baseball frequented the night life of Jazz venues here in K.C., The Big Easy and Harlem. I had read that when Satchel married in Harlem, his best man was Mr. Bojangles.
For a ticket price of $13 for seniors, you can wander through an era of Negro Americana before and after Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Negro Baseball Shrine is careful to remind its visitors, no matter your devotion to the game, that this exhibit of sport and business is not to be deemed a Hall of Fame. Evidently, there is a reverence to the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame shrine that rightfully so in 1962 welcomed stars from the Negro Leagues as Hall of Famers.
But it is here that the Negro League’s great players come to life in bronze, a formidable lineup in the main Field of Legends exhibit, replicating a baseball diamond setting, complete with advertisement-covered fences.
James Earl Jones is the quintessential narrator of a short film chronically the history of the Negro Leagues, “Jim Crowe” segregation, and Branch Rickey’s decision to break the color line in 1947. The Dodger General Manager never forgot the indignity experienced by a Negro college baseball teammate who was prohibited from lodging and restaurants. I have also read accounts that Rickey was very shrewd and realized a potential rival Mexican League, was promising big money to white and black major leaguers in the same post World War II period.
Cooperstown probably draws many more visitors in its quaint, small-town, upper New York State setting with Abner Doubleday Field just out back. But I actually enjoyed this baseball Museum in a historical big-city cultural district more because its photos, murals, film and memorabilia captured the life, times and struggle of the young Negro players. And yet there is a joy in many of the photos of ballplayers and their fans always dressed appropriately to the “nines”.
I sought out the bronze plaques of Josh Gibson, the Black Babe Ruth, the indomitable pitcher Satchel Paige who was finally granted a chance to pitch in the Major Leagues for the Cleveland Indians in 1948, a year after Robinson’s historic and often-times tumultuous arrival.
Cool Papa Bell’s locker
Another favorite plaque and locker belongs to Cool Papa Bell. The St. Louis Stars uniform is one I had never seen. But I long ago learned of Cool Papa’s legendary speed on the base paths. Posted are several newspaper articles touting his swiftness, including the classic Satchel anecdote how Cool Papa could snap the light off in a hotel room and be under the sheets before the room went dark. Being a St. Louis native, I knew post-baseball, he worked as a custodian in St. Louis City Hall and never spoke bitterly in newspaper interviews about not getting a chance to play in the integrated major Leagues.
Speaking of my hometown, I enjoyed sharing baseball stories with another ardent fan from St. Louis, but originally from Kay-Cee, in town to see the Royals and Rangers playoff game.
I was in K.C. on school accrediting business. In an earlier career as a sportswriter, I would have spent more time and interviewed the curator for information for this blog. It was would have been great fun to study the exhibits with someone like my old Journalism school classmate Steve Marantz, like me now a nostalgic baseball fan. I did tour the museum with an accreditation co- worker, Terry McGowan, from Vegas. Although not a big baseball fan, she enjoyed the baseball museum as much as the subsequent step back into the world of American Jazz. She couldn’t wait to email photos to a good friend who loves baseball.
I had known that some of the Negro League club owners were Caucasian business men recognizing a niche and potential money- making opportunity. Negro League games drew good crowds especially on Sundays, including white fans, before Robinson and other black stars players were signed by Major League teams. However, I was especially intrigued by newspaper accounts that Chicago American Giants owner Andrew “Rube” Foster didn’t want white ownership in the Negro game. He was among the Negro League founders and was a key force in the promotion of the highly-popular Negro League All-Star, East-West Game that drew over 20,000 fans to Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, in 1933, just days before the inaugural Major League All-Star game played there. Another innovation introduced in the Negro Leagues was baseball under the lights.
The Buck O’Neill locker also held my interest, having met him in my sports writing career. What a gentleman, historian and baseball Ambassador. He always spoke with class and fondness of his Negro League and baseball career. A K.C. Monarch player but not a Cooperstown Hall of Famer, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. O’Neil often could be approached right here at the Museum. He was instrumental in the stages of creating the now 10,000 square foot museum along with other businessmen. He coached in the Major Leagues but was too old to join Robinson and others as baseball pioneers.
Other favorite honored players here were Judy Johnson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. Campy, a Dodger and National League all-star counterpart to beloved Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, started his career in the Negro Leagues. So did the hard-throwing, good-hitting pitcher Newcombe. I related to Terry an interview I had with Newcombe in the early 70s, long after his Dodger career. Newcombe was in Portland, Maine, on business. I went to see him at his hotel. He asked if I could take him to his meeting and that we could talk baseball after. This twenty- something sports writer gladly agreed. I expected he was in town to talk to some rotary club about the Dodger glory days. We entered a local hall and sat in the back row. When the room filled, Newk stood up and announced, ” I am Don Newcombe, and I am an Alcoholic. ”
Our interview covered his drinking problem from his days as a star player with Jackie Robinson, who he so much admired.
There is eye-catching memorabilia throughout the museum, such as a scout’s letter to the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns on the prowess and cool demeanor of a young Hank Aaron. Hammerin’ Hank (a college classmate of mine Lonnie Wheeler authored a great-read biography of Aaron) of course broke Babe Ruth’s career home run mark while facing threats and bigotry that were commonplace for the Negro League players when barnstorming in the American South the early 1900s to 1960. Pioneering black major leaguers faced the same bigotry in their minor league careers. They often slept in the team bus because no hotel would house Negros. Restaurants would not serve them. I was astounded to read a newspaper article about Aaron as an up and coming Indianapolis star who was nicknamed “Pork Chop” because that was his favorite meal.