KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City is a fitting home field for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: It was here that the first professional league for black players was formed in 1920 and where Jackie Robinson was playing in 1945 when he was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers to be the player who would break the color barrier. And it was the Kansas City Monarchs who won the first Negro World Series in 1924.
The museum, founded in 1990, has stepped admirably to the plate to preserve the history of the half-century when black players were shut out of professional baseball and formed their own teams.
The museum's exhibits tell the story beginning after the Civil War when African Americans were allowed to play professional baseball. When Jim Crow laws ended their participation in the late 1880s, they formed their own teams, barnstorming the country to play wherever they could but with no league organization.
Then Andrew "Rube" Foster, a respected team owner and former player, in 1920 called together seven other club owners for a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City. The group formed the Negro National League, which was followed by five other leagues active at various times in the next four decades. Thirty cities in the South, Midwest and Northeast fielded teams.
A film narrated by James Earl Jones introduces museum visitors to the era of segregated baseball, when games drew as many as 10,000 spectators and were so important in black communities that ministers let out church early on game days.
The centerpiece of the 10,000-square-foot museum, housed since 1997 in the heart of Kansas City's fabled 18th and Vine Jazz District, is the Field of Legends, where visitors can walk onto a playing field among famous players captured in bronze playing a mythical all-star game. On the pitching mound is Satchel Paige, the highest paid player in the Negro Leagues because of the crowds he attracted. Kansas Citian Buck O'Neil, the first black coach in Major League Baseball and instrumental in founding the museum, looks on from the dugout.
A wealth of historical photographs and newspaper clippings illustrate the story of black baseball. One vintage poster advertises the Zulu Cannibals and Tennessee Rats "clown teams," whose antics were a precursor to the Harlem Globetrotters. (An 18-year-old Hank Aaron helped the Indianapolis Clowns win the 1952 Negro World Series.)
One exhibit tells how players had difficulty finding lodging and restaurants when they were on the road. Rows of open lockers show game-worn uniforms, cleats, gloves and hats from numerous players. Nearly 200 baseballs have been autographed by players in the black baseball leagues, and an interactive directory allows visitors to look up stats on individual players.
A timeline shows when black players signed with major league teams. Though it took until 1959 for every major league team to be integrated, interest in the black leagues began to wane in the 1950s when the best players were signed by the major league.
A combo ticket that includes the adjacent American Jazz Museum is an excellent way to learn about the legends of jazz and baseball who populated the 18th and Vine area of Kansas City in the 1920s and '30s.
A few blocks away is Arthur Bryant's barbecue joint, which is worth a visit while in the neighborhood. Come for the sauce, but take a moment to admire the photographs of the Kansas City Monarchs, as well as Aaron, Paige and Robinson, who played in the nearby baseball stadium.
Info: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, 1616 E. 18th St., Kansas City, Mo.; (816) 221-1920, www.nlbm.com. Tickets cost $10 for adults (combo ticket with adjacent American Jazz Museum is $15), $9 for seniors ($13 combo) and $6 for children ($8 combo) 12 and under. Open Tuesdays-Sundays.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun