Kansas City, Mo. — As good as the barbecue was — and it definitely lived up to its reputation — Terry Wash of Canton Township was surprised to find something he considered even better on his recent visit to Kansas City.
While browsing exhibits at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District, the longtime Detroit attorney was mesmerized by displays dedicated to the athletes and their history during a time of segregation in America. He also recalled a favorite childhood memory.
“I saw Satchel Paige pitch (for the Kansas City Monarchs) at Briggs Stadium (in Detroit) in 1960,” says Wash, 71, citing the museum’s tributes to the legendary pitcher, who, in 1971, was the first Negro Leagues player elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “This museum is a must-see attraction. I spent three hours here, and that wasn’t enough time.”
That’s the kind of reaction Bob Kendrick, president of the museum, is going for as he oversees plans for this year’s centennial celebration of Negro Leagues Baseball. Founded on Feb. 13, 1920, by Andrew “Rube” Foster, a player-manager-owner of the Chicago American Giants and eventual Hall of Famer, the Negro Leagues provided a platform for 40 years for more than 4,000 black and Hispanic baseball players — including Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars — to showcase their world-class baseball abilities at a time when baseball’s color line kept them out of the mainstream.
The Detroit Tigers soon will be represented in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, too, according to Ray Doswell, vice president of curatorial services. Ozzie Virgil, who was the Tigers’ first player of color, will be included in a new display, “Barrier Breakers,” debuting this spring. Virgil, a Dominican, joined the Tigers on Jan. 28, 1958 — 62 years ago last week.
While Kansas City Monarchs shortstop Jackie Robinson famously broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Negro Leagues continued for another 13 years as star players were plucked off, according to the museum, whose stated mission is to preserve and celebrate this fading slice of American culture. Today, it’s believed there are fewer than 100 living players.
“What Rube Foster accomplished in establishing the Negro Leagues against the backdrop of American segregation is monumental and richly deserves to be more than just a footnote in baseball history,” says Kendrick, who credits the Negro Leagues with changing not only the game of baseball but the nation. “This is as much a civil rights story as it is a baseball story.”
The museum, founded 30 years ago, tells these intertwined stories in various — and poignant — ways, starting with a 15-minute movie, “They Were All Stars,” narrated by actor James Earl Jones. Through photos, advertising posters and film clips, visitors learn that Negro Leagues players, though often outstanding athletes and heroes in their own communities, were forbidden to travel and dine in white establishments, including railroad cars, hotels and diners.
At the same time, they were welcomed in Spanish-speaking countries, according to Kendrick. “They slept in the finest hotels and ate in the finest restaurants that those countries had to offer,” he says. “Those players would then return to the United States and be treated like second-class citizens.”
Black baseball typically drew huge crowds. One museum exhibit shows enthusiastic fans “dressed to the nines” for games, which were the social highlight of the week. Players were known for a daring, aggressive style of play that emphasized speed and showmanship.
“You couldn’t go to the concession stands because you might miss something you’ve never seen before!” is an oft-quoted observation by the museum’s founder, Buck O’Neil, a star Kansas City Monarchs first baseman and Negro Leagues manager who made history as the first black Major League coach (Chicago Cubs, 1962).
The era comes alive through museum artifacts such as player jerseys and other gear and an eye-popping display of baseballs, including some 300 with player autographs that were donated to the museum by Geddy Lee, the lead singer of the rock band Rush.
The Detroit Stars, who were among the eight founding Negro League teams in 1920, are represented by a photo, jersey and bat used by Stearnes, a feared hitter who played 11 of his 19 seasons for Detroit and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. His nickname is attributed to his flapping arms-running style — although Stearnes said it stemmed from his childhood pot belly. He was a Detroit Stars outfielder from 1923-31 and again from 1933-37.
The Stars played for a time at Hamtramck Stadium, one of only a dozen remaining venues where the Negro Leagues played. Located in Veterans Park, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Other exhibits look at the role of the media in the integration of baseball and highlight women in the Negro Leagues, including three skilled players — Toni Stone, Connie Morgan, and Mamie Johnson — and Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley, the only woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The museum’s most dramatic exhibit, Field of Legends, is a makeshift baseball field with life-size bronze statues of Negro Leagues greats including pitcher Satchel Paige, catcher Josh Gibson and centerfielder Oscar Charleston. Buck O’Neil is there, too, “managing” the team. Visitors glimpse the field as they enter the museum, and pass through a gate onto the field after they’ve toured the other exhibits, free to snap selfies among the statues.
The Legends exhibit captured the imagination of Victoria Barksdale, who visited the museum recently from Atlanta. It reminded her of the movie, “Field of Dreams,” she said, and made her wonder if games are played there after the museum closes.
Negro Leagues Baseball Centennial Celebration
Museum hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; noon to 6 p.m., Sunday
Feb. 13 – A recreation at Kansas City’s Paseo YMCA of the document-signing that created the Negro Leagues 100 years ago. Also, kick-off for the museum’s special art exhibit, “Black Baseball in Living Color: The Art of Graig Kreindler.”
April 11 - Jazz & Jackie, a musical salute to Jackie Robinson.
May 17 - Salute to the Negro Leagues at Kauffman Stadium. The Kansas City Royals will host the Los Angeles Dodgers and wear throwback KC Monarchs uniforms.
June 13 - Hall of Game induction ceremony honoring former Major League Baseball players who play in the spirit of the Negro Leagues.
Nov. 14 - Centennial Gala and dedication of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center.
Information: Check nlbm.com and visitkc.com. Also, nlbemuseum.com for archival details on players.
Etc.: Save time for the American Jazz Museum, adjoining the baseball museum. It celebrates Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and others who lived in or performed at 18th and Vine; americanjazzmuseum.org. The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee has produced the Negro Leagues Centennial Team Bobbleheads, 32 limited-edition collectibles; a portion of the proceeds benefit the NLBM, bobbleheadhall.com.
Detroit Tigers set annual Negro Leagues Weekend
The Detroit Tigers will celebrate their 18th annual Negro Leagues Weekend on July 17-19 at Comerica Park. As part of the events, the Tigers will host the White Sox in the annual Negro Leagues tribute game in which the Tigers will wear Detroit Stars uniforms and the White Sox will wear the uniforms of the Chicago American Giants. That team was owned by Rube Foster, who founded the Negro Leagues in Kansas City in 1920. The Detroit Stars, who started playing in 1919, was among the founding league teams in 1920.
The Tigers also have plans in the works to mark the Negro Leagues’ 100th anniversary, but details are not yet available.