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Preserving key baseball legacy not easy
KANSAS CITY, Mo.
A large, soft-spoken black man, 6-foot-7 and nearly 300 pounds, strides through the front doors of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum one recent morning.
Heads turn. Baseball fans in Yankee caps point at the man: Baggy jeans, an untucked button-up shirt, and, in each earlobe, a dime-sized piece of bling. The director of the museum rushes up, shakes his hand then ushers him off for a personal tour of one of the often overlooked jewels of Kansas City.
The man’s name is CC Sabathia. For the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to survive after several years of financial struggles and internal political turmoil, it’s going to need many more CC Sabathias walking through its doors and lending their celebrity to the museum’s noble yet struggling cause.
The 10,000-square-foot tribute to this once-forgotten piece of history has moved dangerously close to itself becoming forgotten. In 2006, Buck O’Neil, the Negro Leagues legend who started this museum two decades ago, died at age 94.
O’Neil’s biggest contribution to the Negro Leagues came decades after he played and managed. He was featured prominently in the Ken Burns documentary, “Baseball,” when his vivid stories put the Negro Leagues back into America’s consciousness. He became a spokesman for the Negro Leagues’ role in the Civil Rights Movement and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
But after Buck died, The House That Buck Built came crumbling down.
The divided museum board didn’t choose O’Neil’s protégé as his successor. The new director chose to focus less on O’Neil’s legacy. Amid internal political squabbles, longtime financial supporters pulled funding. The museum lost about $250,000 last year and stands to lose about the same this year. The annual celebrity golf tournament dwindled to only 70 participants and the museum’s signature event, an annual awards show, wasn’t even held this winter.
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It was almost as if, when Buck O’Neil died, his museum died with it.
And now it’s up to Bob Kendrick — O’Neil’s former right-hand man and the museum’s new director — to right the museum’s path. On this recent morning, Kendrick is doing celebrity outreach as he gives a history lesson to the best pitcher in baseball.
Sabathia, in town for a series against the Royals, strides past a bronze statue of Buck and into the museum’s exhibit space. He’s been here perhaps a half-dozen times before, but he keeps coming back. The museum centers him, Sabathia says, reminding him of those who paved his path.
“This is about taking control of the story and telling it the way it shoulda been told,” Kendrick tells him.
Kendrick talks about how Sunday games were so popular that black churches moved up their services so people could attend. He shows Sabathia an old metal protective cup from the Negro Leagues, and Sabathia laughs. But more than any achievements on the diamond, though, this museum is dedicated to integrating the history of Negro Leagues baseball with the history of race and America.
Sabathia’s iPhone rings, but he turns it off. Sabathia gets to a locker dedicated to the legendary Satchel Paige, and he pauses.
Sabathia’s big droopy eyes grow large. Paige is Sabathia’s favorite Negro Leaguer, both having pitched for the Cleveland Indians. Sabathia looks at all this history and knows: This is why he’s playing the game, why he’s a millionaire and why he’s a star.
“It’s my lineage,” Sabathia says. “Any time I can get a chance to come here, see that and feel that, I’m going to take every opportunity. I know the players support it, big time… If (the museum) got some donations from Major League Baseball, that would be great too.”
It would be great, but Kendrick has more pressing matters: To get the finances out of the red, to plot a future, to reassure boosters the museum is back on track.
He doesn’t have much time. Next year’s All-Star Game will be in Kansas City, giving the museum an opportunity to reestablish itself but also spotlighting its recent struggles.
“It’s way too important to lose,” Kendrick tells Sabathia. “We’ve been doing this for 21 years now. Buck put his heart and soul in this thing.”
And now Kendrick’s charge is reviving Buck’s soul.
The part of Kansas City where Buck O’Neil put his shrine to the Negro Leagues is just outside downtown, a gritty neighborhood known as 18th and Vine that, when the Negro Leagues were founded here in 1920, was the Harlem of the Midwest.
The hub of black Kansas City was home to jazz music and barbeque, a place where black businesses thrived during segregation. Harlem had Langston Hughes and The Apollo Theater. Kansas City had Charlie Parker and The Blue Room.
“You come to Kansas City for a game, you go down to 18th and Vine,” said Mickey Smith, whose father, Hilton Smith, was an all-time Negro League great. “As a small kid, 6 years old, I would be out there, the Blue Room. I couldn’t go in, but when they opened the door I could hear the music.”
It is here where, in a tiny third-floor office, Buck O’Neil and a handful of ex-Negro Leaguers began their crusade to memorialize a forgotten time.
A grand museum was built. Inside, you can learn about the four other blacks who entered the big leagues the same year as Jackie Robinson, or you can laugh like Sabathia did when he heard “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron’s first nickname: Pork Chops.
“You can walk out with a great deal of knowledge and respect for how it was, how baseball is now because of that, and a little bit of what the players had to go through,” said Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson.
But more than any baseball minutiae, the museum weaves together the story of the Negro Leagues and the story of race in America.
You can learn about how Cap Anson, a virulent racist and one of the best ballplayers of the late 1800s, led the charge to ban black ballplayers at the same time America turned its back on Reconstruction. You can learn how the Negro Leagues became the most successful black business in America but collapsed after integration.
It’s a story of how one sport reflected a country’s attitudes on race — and then, with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947, how America’s Pastime became a precursor for the Civil Rights movement.
“It’s about America at its worst but also America at its best, because it shows the American spirit,” Kendrick says.
No one can deny the nobility of this museum’s inspirational cause. But the museum’s story since Buck O’Neil’s death has been less than inspirational.
“After Buck passed away the board decided to go in a new direction,” said Don Motley, the museum’s former director. “It was very, very painful to see that.”
“Everybody felt that (Bob Kendrick) would be the next guy, but he wasn’t,” said Royals broadcaster Frank White. “And it took a lot of support away from the museum… Now that Bob’s back, you have to be optimistic.”
“People were just like a magnet to Buck,” said Ernie “Schoolboy” Johnson, who played in the Negro Leagues under O’Neil. “After Buck passed they got a little bit off track. But now that they got Kendrick back, I think that things will be better … He’s got that personality too.”
Since taking over in April, Kendrick has scaled back plans for the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center in the historic building where the Negro Leagues were founded from a $15 million project to a $3.5 million project. Membership has increased substantially. They still get about 50,000 visitors a year.
The annual awards ceremony will return this January. And with optimism reminiscent of Buck O’Neil, Kendrick hopes the museum will break even by the end of this fiscal year.
The challenges are many: Museums always struggle, for one, and this museum doesn’t get financial support from the federal government or Major League Baseball.
There’s the hit to the museum’s reputation in recent years. And then there’s the fact that African-American big leaguers are declining — less than 10 percent of current big-leaguers are black — reflecting a greater ambivalence about the sport in the black community.
Yet in pressing the reset button just before Kansas City hosts the All-Star Game next year, Kendrick hopes this is the perfect time for the museum to take the world stage.
“We can’t allow their story to die,” Kendrick said.
On a breezy recent summer morning in Kansas City, the clubhouse at Shoal Creek Golf Course buzzes with activity.
Bo Jackson, the former two-sport star, smacks drive after towering drive on the range. Neil Smith, the former Chiefs defensive end, walks to his Mercedes-Benz to get a sleeve of balls. Frank White, the former Royals All-Star and current Royals broadcaster, sips a coffee in the clubhouse. Mickey Smith, the son of Negro Leagues legend and Cooperstown inductee Hilton Smith, trades stories with Johnny Wilson, an 84-year-old ex-Negro Leaguer and ex-Harlem Globetrotter.
At the 2011 Buck O’Neil Golf Classic, things look optimistic for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The benefit has double the participation as last year, raising $20,000.
“This museum is the cornerstone for black baseball players,” says Jackson. “It’s our Statue of Liberty. It’s our Graceland. And it’s a place where we can go back and learn about our roots. If there’s a function with Buck O’Neil’s name behind it, I do whatever I can to attend.”
Kendrick gets on a microphone and reminds people about O’Neil’s legacy. Golf carts rumble off into the morning mist, Jackson followed by White followed by Negro Leaguers who paved their path.
On the first tee, Ozzie Smith, the former St. Louis Cardinals great, takes out his driver and eases into a few practice swings.
“Wind’s blowing big, isn’t it?” he says, looking down the first fairway.
Ozzie stands over his ball. He pauses, wiggles, then backs away. The wind is gusting now. Ozzie looks toward the sky.
“Come on, Buck!” he says, to laughs.
O’Neil’s spirit lingers everywhere in Kansas City: Over this event, over the museum, over the Negro Leagues legacy he immortalized. He made this museum relevant through the sheer force of personality.
What’s happened since he died is a shame. It has that unseemly stink of a family squabbling over possessions after a patriarch’s death.
But hopefully those who matter will get over the pettiness and remember what Buck stood for: equality, humility, and eternal optimism. Only then can the legacy of the Negro Leagues carry on at 18th and Vine.
It’ll take not just a better financial base but a broader vision for the museum, focusing on marketing as a national treasure instead of just a regional one, and reaching out to more CC Sabathias.
Bob Kendrick knows it’ll be a long hill to climb.
“We’ll start looking at vision-based strategies once we stop the bleeding,” Kendrick says. “I don’t look five years down the road. I look at today and tomorrow so we’ll be there five years down the road.”
On the first tee, the wind settles back to a calming breeze, as if Buck willed it so. Ozzie stands over his ball, takes a hack and rips a drive down the middle. The drive is perfect, bouncing up the hill and out of sight. Ozzie Smith jumps in his cart and drives up the long path toward the future.