KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When American original and Negro Leagues poet laureate Buck O’Neil spoke of arriving in Kansas City, Bob Kendrick recalled on Thursday, O’Neil liked to say, “I knew I was coming to the heart of America; I never knew I was coming to the center of the universe.”
With the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory over San Francisco still fresh and surreal in most everyone’s minds, Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, couldn’t help but briefly refer to how that reaffirmed Kansas City’s place in the cosmic order.
But this affair at the former Paseo YMCA was about a different sort of epicenter here: a momentous occasion 100 years ago to the day on this site and the preservation of that legacy in the present and for posterity.
Most immediately, it was about “Celebrating A Game-Changing Century” — the theme of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s year-long 100th anniversary commemoration of the founding of the leagues of their own for the men banned from the major leagues because of the color of their skin.
Never forget. Better yet, always remember this vital intersection of baseball and American history and Kansas City heritage.
One of eternal Negro Leagues great Satchel Paige’s rules for staying young was “don’t look back; something might be gaining on you.” But this isn’t about staying young.
“I think this is something that needs to not only gain on us but catch up and stay with us and move forward,” said Frank White, the Jackson County executive and former Royals great.
The story is perhaps so generally familiar now, especially here, that its essence might easily fade into the background for some. Or maybe it just seems unbelievable to others, particularly younger people.
“When you bring your kids through here, your grandkids, they say, ‘What?!’” said new Royals owner John Sherman, who considers the museum an “iconic cultural institution” of the area along the lines of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
So from the center of this universe, where Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred was on hand Thursday among a number of political dignitaries, the story will ripple across the country this year.
With the considerable help of MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association, which made a joint $1 million donation to the NLBM intended to spur additional contributions that can be made at nlbm.com/centennial.
Moreover, Manfred declared that on June 27 all MLB players will wear a special Negro Leagues patch to commemorate the 100th anniversary. He also said a number of teams are planning tribute games throughout the year and noted upcoming related features to be presented on the MLB Network and mlb.com.
Manfred said MLB’s interest in the NLBM is multi-faceted: from honoring African-American culture to baseball history to embracing lessons of inclusion and diversity to apply today as they try to attract more young African-Americans to the game.
“I don’t think you can achieve that goal unless you can show young people that people who look like them have been part of the history,” he said.
As much as the months ahead will make for a rekindling nationally of the story that became popular knowledge with O’Neil’s role in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary miniseries, “Baseball,” there are few ways to understand it better than visiting the museum.
And all the more so with the animation of Kendrick, the endlessly energetic and ever-present disciple of O’Neil.
Sherman was right when he said, “One-hundred years from now, when Bob’s not around to tell that story, we’ve got to figure out how we can kind of keep the richness” of his tellings.
Not to mention his relentlessness. Here Kendrick was one night on ESPN, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said, and then there he was on … NFL Network?
“But he cares that much about sharing the story of baseball, sharing the story of Kansas City and sharing the story of our history,” Lucas said.
They’re all entwined, of course, going back to Feb. 13, 1920, when Rube Foster established the Negro National League in a meeting of eight independent black baseball team owners.
The meeting set the stage for 40 years of entrepreneurship and innovation, and playing for the love of the game, and many great characters of great character.
And it paved the way for former Kansas City Monarch Jackie Robinson to become baseball’s so-called great experiment, integrating the major leagues in 1947 — the beginning of seismic changes ahead.
“The story is about baseball in one hand … but it really transcends baseball,” said Sherman, who planned to fly to Arizona on Saturday for his first spring training as owner of the Royals. “It’s bigger than baseball.”
By way of examples, the former minority owner of the Cleveland Indians recalled what he learned here about Larry Doby, who with Cleveland integrated the American League only a few months after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
When then-manager Lou Boudreau asked all the players to shake Doby’s hand in welcome, three refused. The next day, he recalled, owner Bill Veeck shipped out those three.
Sherman also thought of President Truman desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948, calling his a “a game-changing role in history” … arguably pushed forward by a game.
“I don’t know if the President’s timing was inspired by what was happening in baseball. But the timing (was) curious,” Sherman said. “And for me, it illustrates how the story transcends baseball.”
Safe to say Sherman will remain an ardent supporter of the NLBM, pledging on Thursday to “never forsake it and forever honor it.”
Standing in what is now known as the Buck O’Neil Center, an extension blocks away from the main museum, Sherman called it “hallowed ground” and made reference to the ongoing repairs needed there due to vandalism in 2018.
“This whole story is about resiliency,” he said, glancing towards Kendrick. “As you said, we won’t let the haters win.”
Especially by passing the story along through the generations.
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