KANSAS CITY, MO. - America’s Pastime has a checkered history much like America’s Past. Racism’s roots run deep in the game of baseball to a time when the ball diamond was clouded with hatred and segregation.
“You’ll never see a greater example of love of the game. They had to love it to endure the things they had to endure,” said museum president Bob Kendrick.
And the enduring theme at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri? How the love of game eventually beat hate.
“These athletes never cried about the social injustice, they went and did something about it.” Added Kendrick.
Kendrick is a human museum of stats and stories.
“That’s a young Henry Aaron leaving Mobile, AL 1952 to go join the Indianapolis Clowns. He told me, Bob. I may have had two changes of clothes in that bag, a $1.50 in my pocket and a ham sandwich that my momma made me going to chase that dream. It worked out pretty well for the hammer.” Added Kendrick.
Among the bats, balls and busts in these hallowed halls are St. Louis’s role in the Negro League story.
“The St. Louis Giants were an original member of the eight teams that formed the Negro National League in 1920. They’re a charter member,” said Kendrick.
The Giants became the St. Louis Stars, and one of their stars had a name that might ring a bell.
“The greatest nickname in baseball history bar none is that of Cool Papa Bell. Of course, he came to St. Louis as a pitcher. As fate would have it, he hurt his arm. When he hurt his arm, they moved him to the outfield, and the legend of Cool Papa Bell is born,” said Kendrick.
Years later St. Louis native and Vashon High School’s Elston Howard would join the Negro Leagues.
“Ellie bypassed an opportunity to go play for Ohio State University to come play for Buck O’Neil and the Kansas City Monarchs,” said Kendrick.
Howard would go on to become the first African-American to the play for the New York Yankees and the first black MVP in the American League. Today he’s honored among the greats in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.
The museum also features a special section dedicated to Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil. His contributions to the game are as unmistakable as is his lasting connection to St. Louis. Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio.
“Ol’ Buck was the last one to sign off on the trade that sent Lou to St. Louis and Buck says every time he’d come to Busch Stadium they gave him a standing ovation.” Added Kendrick.
When the Cardinals played in Kansas City this season broadcaster Mike Claiborne and Cardinal great Willie McGee brought Paul DeJong, Jack Flaherty and Harrison Bader by the museum. The players fixated on this picture of the legendary Josh Gibson.
“Harrison went out after he saw this picture and just beat my Royals to death. I said hey man, I wanted to tell you about Josh Gibson, I didn’t want you to become Josh Gibson,” said Kendrick.
And no trip to the museum would be complete without paying homage to Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league baseball color barrier in 1947 after playing in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs. It doesn’t take long to learn this place is as much a history museum as it is a baseball museum.
“You not only witness the rise and subsequent fall of the Negro Leagues, you witness the social rise of America simultaneously,” said Kendrick.
If failing to learn from our history dooms us to repeat it, there are some important reminders of those lessons a short drive from St. Louis the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.