Less than two years ago, I wrote what in some ways was the saddest blog post I’ve written. I wrote about how I was breaking away from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. In the time since I wrote it, people keep asking me to write again about it and, more, to give my heart back to the place. I just couldn’t do it. I’m just being honest. Something broke inside.
The NLBM — that not-so-memorable abbreviation that the museum has long used to identify itself — was a big part of my life for many years. This was, in large part, because of my friendship with Buck O’Neil. I loved Buck, of course, and because of that I loved the museum in Kansas City that was, in large part, his vision. It was built on the corner of 18th and Vine, that famous corner for the Kansas City jazz scene. Buck wanted people to know about the Negro Leagues. Before Jackie Robinson, before 1947 (and for a few years after), there was no Major League baseball dream for African Americans (or dark skinned Latinos). Baseball was the only grand American team sport then, the true National Pastime, and for black children across the country there was no Major League hope, no New York Yankees daydream, no St. Louis Cardinals wish.
There was, instead, the Negro Leagues — a bumpy, wonderful, insolvent, successful, willful, troubling and glorious gem of a league where players played joyous and violent baseball for love and, for the most part, a barely living wage. Everything about the Negro Leagues was contrast and conflict including the reason for its very existence. There is little doubt that some of the greatest players in baseball history — Oscar Charleston, Leon Day, Turkey Stearnes, Smokey Joe Williams, Bullet Joe Rogan, Martin Dihigo, Mule Suttles to name only a few — played in the Negro Leagues, and even less doubt that almost nobody remembered them. People knew Satchel Paige, certainly. Baseball fans might have known Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. But America’s collective memory had no place for the leagues and for those extraordinary men who played before their time began, before 1947.*
*I often make this point, but it is worth making again: Do you want to know how good the Negro Leagues were? Well, consider who came out of the Negro Leagues in those early years:
1. Jackie Robinson (1947)
— Hall of Famer, one of the great second basemen ever).
2. Larry Doby (1947)
— Hall of Famer, a 141 OPS+ from 1947-55, when he was one of best players in the game.
3. Hank Thompson (1947)
— Busted in first call-up with dysfunctional St. Louis Browns, but returned to Giants in 1949 and was a good player for eight seasons.
4. Willard Brown (1947)
— Busted in short call-up to same dysfunctional Browns, but was already 32. Hall of Famer for his play in Negro Leagues.
5. Dan Bankhead (1947)
— Was considered a can’t-miss prospect but, according to his son, he never could handle the extreme pressure that was placed on him as first African American pitcher in big leagues.
6. Roy Campanella (1948)
— Hall of Famer, three-time MVP, one of the great catchers in baseball history.
7. Satchel Paige (1948)
— Hall of Famer, and was already a legend by the time he was called up to the big leagues at, well, whatever age he wanted to be.
8. Don Newcombe (1949)
— Rookie of the Year, Cy Young winner, MVP winner.
9. Monte Irvin (1949)
— Hall of Famer, didn’t get his chance in big leagues until he was 30, still was a terrific player. Led the league in RBIs in 1951.
10. Sam Jethroe (1950)
— The Jet did not make the big leagues until he was 33, but he still twice led the big leagues in steals and in power-speed number.
11. Minnie Minoso (1951)
— One of the best “old” players in baseball history, he was absolutely one of the best players of the 1950s and, in my mind, should be in the Hall of Fame.
12. Willie Mays (1951)
— Hall of Famer, of course, is introduced at Giants games simply as “the greatest player in baseball history.” And if he isn’t, he is certainly in the photograph.
That’s it — first four years of call-ups, 12 players and of those 12, seven are in the Hall of Fame (and you might have the best pitcher and best all-around every day player in baseball history), an eighth (Minoso) could be in the Hall of Fame, a ninth (Newcombe) was a truly great player. So you tell me: How good was the Negro Leagues? Nine out of the first 12 were remarkable players. And over the next few years Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, who played briefly in the Negro Leagues, would become big leaguers, and so would MVP Elston Howard.
So, now in your mind, back up the breaking of the color barrier to 1937. And instead of those guys the names might have been Josh Gibson (of course) and Buck Leonard and Leon Day and Hilton Smith and Willie Wells and Cool Papa Bell.
The Negro Leagues remain a difficult thing to celebrate. For obvious reasons, almost nobody mourned its death. If anything, people mourned that it had ever existed at all. How do you celebrate an anachronism? How do you commemorate a piece of America that was not touched by what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature? And yet, as Buck would say, these guys COULD PLAY, MAN. These teams were centerpieces of bustling black communities. The biggest games were played on Sundays after church, following Saturday nights overflowing with jazz — this is American history too. Buck dedicated the later part of his life to keeping this history alive, these memories alive, to keeping the players alive, to reminding people that, yes, Willie Mays was the GREATEST MAJOR LEAGUE player he ever saw, but Oscar Charleston was the GREATEST PLAYER he ever saw.
I was lucky enough to be one of many infused by Buck’s energy, his enthusiasm, his optimism. Whatever Buck wanted me to do to help, I did. Over the years, I served as a master of ceremonies or panel member or something for dozens of Negro Leagues events. I spread the gospel. We as a family donated a lot of money — or at least a lot of money for us. There are so many good causes, and I want to help out in as much as I can — don’t most of us want to help as much as we can? — but the NLBM was personal to me, special to me. I say all this only to offer context. I loved the place.
When Buck died, he made it clear what he wanted to happen. He wanted Bob Kendrick to run the museum. I have always had to be careful here because Bob is one of my closest friends, and one of the best people I know. Bob was also the marketing director at the museum and the man at the heart — from my point of view — of the remarkable success the museum achieved. The place built up from a one room rental office (with various people around town taking turns to pay the rent) into a national treasure, honored by Congress, visited by the biggest names in sports and life, and I thought Bob was the imagination and energetic force behind it all.
And this is where the story turns. In a process where the less said the better, the board did not hire Bob Kendrick to run the museum. Instead, by one vote, they voted in a man named Greg Baker. I did not know (still do not know) Greg Baker — which was troubling to me since for almost 10 years I had attended or hosted more or less every major Negro Leagues museum event, and I had never once seen him. But it was the various stories I started hearing from people that concerned me more. I don’t think it’s right to go into it here. But it was made clear to me that the museum was going in a different direction, away from the vision of Buck O’Neil, away from the ethos that had made me fall in love with the museum and the story in the first place. I will tell you that The Kansas City Star did a long interview with Baker where he laid out his new vision for the museum — a vision that included only two kind of things: 1. Things that were utterly impossible; 2. Things that the museum had long been doing though he seemed unaware of it.
Sometimes, I badly want to be wrong. I often AM badly wrong, but not usually on those things. When the Royals hired Buddy Bell, I thought it was a badly mismatched hire … but because Buddy is among my favorite people in baseball I wanted to be wrong. I never wanted more to be wrong than with the Negro Leagues Museum direction. But I was pretty sure I wasn’t wrong. I was pretty sure that the direction they were taking the thing could only lead to money failure and disconnection from the community and a crisis. Then the economy tanked, which hurt badly but also offered an excuse. When stories leaked out about the NLBM’s terrible money problems, the inevitable quotes blamed the bad economy. It never felt worse being right.
This week, after less than two years, Greg Baker stepped down from the NLBM. I’ve heard from many people around town about it, and while the details would only muddy things up I can tell you that from what I have heard everything I feared happened in triplicate. The museum is not just in danger but in grave danger. And they are looking for someone to lead.
My friend Bob Kendrick now is executive director in the KC office for the National Sports Center of the Disabled — he just put on a wonderful event in town featuring pitcher Jim Abbott. I don’t know if he has been approached. A good man, Ray Doswell, who has been curator for a long time, serves as interim director. I’ve been told by several people that the museum will now return to the dream of Buck O’Neil. I hope so. I very much hope so. The Negro Leagues Museum was never going to survive as a tourist attraction. It can only survive, I think, as an ideal that inspires us, and challenges us, a place that makes us happy and sad all at the same time. That’s one of the tougher tricks in the world — happy and sad together.
“I wish you had seen us play,” Buck used to say to me all the time. “We could play, man!”
Happy and sad together.