Grand Opening of Negro League Baseball Museum speaks to years of effort

Rayner Banks points to an exhibit at the newly constructed Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball March 23.
Rayner Banks points to an exhibit at the newly constructed Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball March 23. (Photo by Elaina Clarke, Carroll County Times)

On March 27, the Owings Mills branch of the Baltimore County Public Library will officially unveil its newest addition: the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball. Many are anticipating the event, which marks the culmination of years of hard work.

"I've been telling all my friends: 'you've got to come here, got to see this.'" Library Circulation Assistant Bernadette Brown said.

"I love it because it is different, it's unique, and it's something special that everyone can enjoy," she said. "And it's only one of a kind."

While many share the excitement, few realize the work that went into making the museum a reality. Though it only took about a year to construct, its creation has been a work in progress for almost two decades.

For self-proclaimed Negro League Goodwill Ambassador and museum Collections and Exhibits Manager, Rayner Banks, the journey has been a labor of love.

"I have a passion for the game of Negro League baseball," he said.

Though he has always been passionate about baseball, his determination to create a home for Negro League memorabilia began in 1996, when he met Geraldine Day at Leon Day Park, soon after its dedication to her late husband. After speaking with her and listening to her stories of Hall-of-Famer Leon Day, Banks decided to make it his mission to keep the legacy of Negro League players alive.

From that point on, Banks and Day formed a partnership, taking memorabilia he had collected from friends and coworkers through his job at the Maryland Transit Authority, and hosting talks and events at various venues including senior centers, schools and libraries.

Through this "travelling exhibit," as Banks came to call it, he met numerous Negro League players who became members of his showcase.

"Most of the time, they [would] go with me, and they actually talk about themselves and what their experiences were, and I provided the artifacts for the event," he said.

One such player was former Baltimore Elite Giant Hubert V. Simmons. At the time they met, Simmons was constantly being contacted by schools to discuss the history of the Negro Leagues. Banks said Simmons, a former Negro League player, felt a strong need to educate future generations about the sacrifice of his fellow athletes, and the impact they made on baseball and society in general. His knowledge and Banks' artifacts made the two a perfect travelling team.

The arrangement led to a nice amount of publicity around the community, especially with the added experience of other Negro League ballplayers. But Simmons and his wife, Audrey, who shared his passion for educating the public about the history of the Negro Leagues, wanted more. They wanted a home for the pieces of history Simmons and Banks carried, a place to display them to the public.

That first home came in the form of a room in the Lochearn Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. In that space, the "travelling exhibit" became a real museum.

"They called me up and asked me, 'Ray we're thinking about starting a museum at the church, what do you think about that?' I said 'yes,' I agreed right away," Banks said.

Simmons and his wife were grateful for the room in the church, but they longed for a more public, permanent venue. For that, they needed a bigger space and funding for construction.

The library provided the space, and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz supplied the funding.

"I would say without [Kamenetz], there would be no museum ... that's the main thing," Banks said. "I am thankful, grateful, that he is a man of passion for the Negro League players, and compassion for us, in that we were looking for a place to call our own [and he came through]."

Banks believes the museum, which features exhibits on the first three floors of the library, has found the perfect venue to satisfy Simmons' desire to educate future generations.

"The importance of the museum itself is to educate and to make awareness that there were Negro ballplayers who played back in the day," he said. "A lot of people don't realize that Negro League players played back then, and not just the males too but three women. And because this is a library, educational tool, it fits right in with the library."

The museum is also in a prime location for tourists coming into the Baltimore area. The library is only a recent addition to the Metro Center, which is undergoing massive construction. The Center will soon hold condos, apartments, shops, and small businesses.

Director of the Baltimore County Office of Tourism and Promotion, Marjorie Hampson, called the center "quite a hustling and bustling little area."

"It's going to be neat once it's all completed," she said. "[There's] still lots and lots of construction going on now."

Hampson said the museum will make for a key component of Baltimore tourism.

"I think just for the fact that it is a museum, it's an attraction, and most tourism is based on attractions, accommodations, restaurants, it brings revenue into Baltimore County," she said.

Brown agreed that the museum will enhance tourism to the area.

"It will bring more people from the city into the county, because city residents and city school-kids, they don't have access to this in the city," she said. "So if they come to the county, they will have access to something rare."

Though Simmons did not live to see the unveiling of the museum that bears his name - he passed away in 2009 -- his legacy can be felt in the reactions of those inspired and touched by it.

"I'm honored," Brown said. "I'm glad it's here. It's been a blessing, a true blessing."