KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When you first step into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, you gaze through chicken wire onto a makeshift baseball field that features 10 former Negro Leaguers among the first to be inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame.
The museum's president, Bob Kendrick, points out the statue of Buck O'Neil, which is on the near side of the wire peering out to the field and "managing" the team of Negro Leagues greats.
O'Neil was one of the most beloved baseball men in Kansas City, one of this city's last links to its proud baseball history. A former player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, O'Neil was the co-founder of the Negro Leagues museum and its greatest ambassador until his death in 2006. His seat at Kauffman Stadium where he used to watch Royals games, situated behind home plate, is given to one person each game who embodies O'Neil's spirit for community service.
O'Neil died in 2006 at the age of 94, but his legacy lives on in people like Kendrick, who is one of the best storytellers you'd ever meet. So he's perfect to deliver the stories of O'Neil and thousands of other Negro Leaguers who were long lost in history.
One of Kendrick's best stories comes just a few months before O'Neil's death on Feb. 27, 2006. O'Neil was part of a special ballot to induct former Negro Leagues players, managers and executives into the Hall of Fame. In Kansas City, they expected O'Neil to be among those selected, and about 300 supporter gathers on the Field of Legends to celebrate. Kendrick and O'Neil were set to fly to Tampa for a news conference to introduce the new group of Hall of Famers.
But O'Neil fell one vote short of election and Kendrick had to deliver the news to O'Neil.
"It set off a tidal wave of anger worldwide, not just in Kansas City, but worldwide," Kendrick said. "Here in Kansas City, it was not a sense of disappointment; it was the feeling like in a time of tragedy. It was just so grave, the reaction people had to Buck O'Neil not getting into the Hall of Fame."
O'Neil asked Kendrick how many other former Negro Leaguers got in. He told him 17.
"I'm furious because in my mind, there no way you put 17 in and leave Buck out when there was really no limitation on how many you could put in," Kendrick said. "He hits the table in utter jubilation because he's happy that 17 of his colleagues got their rightful place in the Hall of Fame. … He always had the ability to bring joy out of despair."
O'Neil then went to the crowd that had gathered at the museum and in Kendrick's words, "delivered one of the most amazing concession speeches."
"He implored everyone not to be angry, not to be bitter, not to express any ill will to anyone who had anything to do with this decision," Kendrick said. "He said, 'I had an opportunity and in this great country, that's all I can ever ask for. They didn't think ol' Buck was good enough. We've got to live with that, but if I'm a Hall of Famer in your eyes, that's all that matters to me.' … Instead of us consoling him, he's consoling us."
O'Neil died just more than nine months later, but he lives on through the museum, which began in 1990 across the street from its current home in the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood of Kansas City. It was a modest museum, with former Negro Leaguers paying the rent to keep it open every month. It moved to its current location in 1997 and the museum will celebrate 25 years next year.
When you walk around the corner from the view of the Field of Legends, you see a tremendous painting of Jackie Robinson stealing home plate at a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. From there, each step is a lesson in the Negro Leagues' place in history – about how Robinson likely never would have broken the color barrier had he not started in the Negro Leagues. You learn about the great plan of Rube Foster to eventually integrate Major League Baseball with all-black teams – players, coaches, executives -- one that backfired when the big leagues started plucking the best black players one by one, leading to the demise of the Negro Leagues.
The Monarchs played the first night game some five years before the first major league game under the lights. An all-black team was the first to go to Japan to play international exhibitions. Dark-skinned Latin players were also not allowed to play in the big leagues before Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, so they also played in the Negro Leagues. And black players often played winter ball in Latin countries, and for the most part they were treated better than they were in the U.S.
There's a photo of a 16-year-old Hank Aaron, getting ready to travel to Indianapolis to sign with a Negro Leagues team. Larry Doby, Willie Mays and Monte Irvin all started their Hall of Fame careers the same way.
Kendrick tells about how before Robinson, Senators owner Clark Griffith was tempted to integrate his team after watching the Homestead Grays play. The teams shared the same field. But it wasn't until Dodgers owner Branch Rickey went against the grain to sign Robinson did the landscape change.
There's a section dedicated to media of that time, including [Baltimore] Afro-American journalist Sam Lacy.
Baltimore has its spot in history as well with the Baltimore Black Sox and the Baltimore Elite Giants. The Elite Giants sent three players – Roy Campanella, Junior Gillam and Joe Black – to the major leagues. All three played for the Dodgers. Campanella became one of the game's best catchers before a car accident left him disabled and ended his career.
Black, who attended Morgan State, became the 1952 National League Rookie of the Year, then had a productive post-playing career, working with Robinson to help get players from Negro Leagues pensions and becoming an executive for the Greyhound bus company.
"Joe Black would be become the first black executive of a major transportation company with Greyhound, which again speaks to the kind of men who played in the Negro Leagues," Kendrick said. "These men had been kind of mislabeled as illiterate, as hobos, as vagabonds when they were actually very intellectual men by large."
Kendrick said that the Negro Leagues had a higher percentage of college-educated players, partly because the Negro Leagues teams would train at historically black colleges and universities and then recruit players from there, while most major league players were drafted out of high school.
"Almost 40 percent of players in the negro leagues has some form of college education," Kendrick said. "Perhaps less than five percent of major leaguers at that time has any kind of college education for the simple reason that the major leagues didn't want you to go to college. But [black players] were the ones who were being depicted as not being smart enough to play in the major leagues. Jackie Robinson who had attended UCLA, walked into a dugout where he was perhaps the most intellectual being in that dugout, yet he's subjected to this incredibly harsh treatment.
"So what we've tried to do is break down the misnomers and stereotypes as it relates to what the Negro Leagues represented," Kendrick added.
For any baseball fan – or history buff in general – the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a must-stop in Kansas City.