Negro Leagues Museum A Worthy Shrine

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KANSAS CITY–Bob Kendrick presided over the doings across town from the Major League Baseball activities leading up to the All-Star game. The president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was a human face representating the legacy of Buck O’Neil and all of the African-Americans who faced discrimination in the sport they loved prior to 1947.

This is the building that Buck built. If Babe Ruth is credited with the construction of Yankee Stadium so thousands more patrons could watch his home-run swing, then Buck O’Neil, the sweet-talking, one-time first baseman and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, is the man who served as conduit from a bygone era to a structure that refuses to let the past die. This is where barrier breakers are honored.

O’Neil, who died in 2006, a month shy of his 95th birthday, was the backbone of creation of this museum that preserves memories of a time America would rather forget because of the shame attached to it. The black ballplayer banned from the majors until that day when Jackie Robinson strode into the majors for the Brooklyn Dodgers 65 years ago is a welcome hero here.

“That’s what this museum is all about,” Kendrick said. “For their contributions to be remembered.”

The men of the lost era include the biggest of stars, from Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, from Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin, from Cool Papa Bell to Ray Dandridge. There are also some famous names in the sport who broke into professional ball just when the color line was breaking and were embraced. But they also had their flings in the Negro Leagues.

There are seven living players who crossed the line from the Negro Leagues to the majors and became All-Stars. The group includes Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe, George Altman, Minnie Minoso, Irvin and Willie Mays.

O’Neil, as gracious a man who ever lived, never admitted that he lost out in any way by being shunned by the majors, even boldly naming his autobiography, “I Was Right On Time.” But other worlds opened up for the players who were born later.

Taking full advantage of linkage with the 83rd All-Star game being played at Kauffman Stadium Tuesday night, this was a full weekend of programs at the museum. Unveiled was a stunning “They Were All Stars” exhibit that will be based at the museum for the next few months and then become a traveling exhibit on a yet-to-be-firmed-up three-to-five-year journey.

The focus is on 20 Negro Leagues players who became Major League stars after 1947 and Kendrick asked listeners to pause for a moment and think about how much poorer the sport would have been if the players like Mays and Aaron, Banks, Irvin and the others had been held back.

“Can you image what it would have been like if they never played in the majors?” Kendrick said.

The museum itself is located on 18th Street in the heart of Kansas City’s jazz district and only a block or so away from where the Negro Leagues were founded in 1920. One of the Negro Leagues’ greatest stars–who was able to play Major League ball in his 40s–was Satchel Paige. One of the long-running jokes and mysteries of the sport was Paige’s true age. His birth date has been pretty much settled on as July 7, 1906.

“I have to wish Satchel a happy 106th birthday,” Kendrick noted a day late. “Or it could have been 116th.”

Two of Paige’s children were in attendance for the Sunday program in the city where he is buried. The program included a long discussion moderated by Hall of Famer Dave Winfield and featuring Aaron and Frank Robinson. Robinson was baseball’s first African-American manager.

Also in the house and involved in the program was Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie and Rachel. Rachel, Jackie Robinson’s widow, turns 90 on July 19 and did not travel to Kansas City. Sharon Robinson, the author of five books, including “Testing the Ice,” a story that relates to her father, who passed away in 1972, said she is sometimes asked if she is Frank Robinson’s daughter. She jokingly called him “my brother.” The program and the place, are very special to the Robinson family.

“The Negro Leagues Museum is a treasure,” she said.