Baltimore County

Negro Leagues museum to play bigger crowds in Baltimore County

Hubert V. Simmons was a gentle man who threw a nasty knuckleball in Negro Leagues baseball, and for years he dreamed of establishing a museum that could tell a story about the national pastime before it was really national, when black players were barred from the majors.

He died two months before a small museum opened for appointments-only viewing in the basement of his church in Lochearn, but friends and family were sure he was there in spirit on Wednesday at the Baltimore County Public Library in Owings Mills for the announcement that the memorabilia collection would soon open there, and play to much bigger crowds.


"I'm unbelievably grateful," his widow, Audrey Simmons, told a gathering at the library, where Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced the plan to establish the Hubert V. Simmons Negro Baseball Museum of Maryland at the expansive new Metro Centre transit development, right next to the Owings Mills campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. Wednesday's event was attended by several former Negro Leagues players.

"I only wish the great Hubert V. Simmons were here to experience the reality of his dream," said Simmons, of Woodlawn, whose late husband — who died in the summer of 2009 at 85 — pitched for the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1950 and 1951. He also played for three teams in North Carolina, his native state.


"I know my good friend Mr. Simmons is looking down on us with a smile," said Ray Banks, who started and is curator of the collection of some 1,000 objects, including photographs, autographed baseballs and bats, a replica fielder's glove and replica uniform jerseys.

Banks estimated that since the collection opened at the Lochearn Presbyterian Church in September 2009, only about 1,000 people have seen it.

Kamenetz estimated that a few thousand people a day will pass through the adjoining entrances of the library and the college, giving the collection much more exposure, especially to people who might not have known it was there at all.

There were discussions about a new building for the collection elsewhere, but Kamenetz said it seemed best to house it in an "environment of learning" where it could be exposed to a "diverse community in terms of race and age and culture."

This is also a much less expensive approach: The county is putting up $125,000 to build displays on three floors and expects to open the museum in January.

The country's most prominent Negro Leagues museum is in Kansas City, and as far as anyone knows, the site in Owings Mills will be the only such museum in Maryland. Soon after the collection opened at the church in 2009, then-Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon announced a $4.1 million plan to bring a Negro Leagues museum to Pennsylvania Avenue as part of an effort to redevelop the historic Sphinx Club. The plan never got off the ground.

Kelly Little, executive director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp., which was leading the effort, said in an interview this week that investors in the project pulled out for a variety of reasons. He declined to elaborate.

The idea of a Negro Leagues baseball museum in Baltimore County was mentioned during the 2010 campaign by Kamenetz's opponents in the primary and the general election. After the election, Audrey Simmons said she and other supporters of the project contacted Kamenetz, whom she credited for embracing the idea immediately.


"This is progress," said Simmons, emphasizing the significance of the Negro Leagues story in American history. "I equate the history of the Negro League to the history of the United States."

Her late husband wanted the history known, she said, because he was devoted to education. Along with running a sportswear and advertising logo business, he pursued a 30-year career as a business teacher and department head at Northwestern High School.

This collection started humbly enough, as Banks became acquainted years ago with Geraldine Day, widow of Leon Day, who also played for the Baltimore Elite Giants, although not at the same time as Simmons. Banks had been an amateur baseball player and fan, but knew nothing about the Negro Leagues at the time.

During years of driving Geraldine Day to speaking engagements, he became a student of the parallel world of black baseball populated by such luminaries as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Buck O'Neil. Some 4,000 players took the field in the Negro Leagues, many of whom went on to play in the Major Leagues in the years after Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947.

Banks started getting donations of memorabilia, which he stored in his basement in Rosedale. He and Simmons talked often about finding a home for the stuff.

Simmons did get to see some of the displays as the collection was being prepared for public view, but did not live to see the opening.


"He would be smiling from ear to ear," said Banks.