When you first walk into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, you will find yourself looking at a baseball field with players on it. Only you will find yourself looking at that field and those players from the other side of chicken wire. The image, of course, was about separation. Through the years, I looked through that chicken wire with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols. Through the years, I stood by that chicken wire and listened to stories from Buck O’Neil and Double Duty Radcliffe and Connie Johnson and the great Monte Irvin, who on his best days, before the war and before integration, might have been the best who ever lived.
We’ll never know that about Irvin, of course, and this is the main thing I used to think about when I and looked through the wire at the statues on the field. We’ll never know. We’ll never know how good Oscar Charleston was … and we’ll never know how hard Smokey Joe Williams really threw … and we’ll never know how many home runs Turkey Stearnes hit … and we’ll never know what the Devil, Willie Wells, looked like fielding a ground ball … and we’ll never know just how fast Cool Papa Bell ran …
… and we’ll never know anything more than we can imagine.
That’s why I loved the museum so much. When people asked Buck how fast Cool Papa Bell was, he would say: “Faster than that.” In other words, Josh Gibson’s home runs traveled exactly as far as your imagination allows. And the museum was a place for imagination. It did not have a lot of memorabilia — too expensive and rare — and it did not have a lot of interactive exhibits. It was more of a spiritual experience. It was a place to think about the barbecue restaurants and the barbershops, where people would stand around and talk about whether Hilton Smith or Leon Day threw a better curveball. It was a place to think about Saturday nights in the city, neon everywhere, whiskey in the air, wild jazz playing through the windows, the wild jazz of late nights and long kisses and rattling dice, some of the music as disjointed and broken as shattered glass, some of it as new and baffling as Charlie Parker’s saxophone. It was a place to think about how good those players were, how much baseball fans lost by not getting to see Satchel Paige when he was still young, and also Jelly Taylor, the Ghost, Popsicle Toes, Mule Suttles, Ray Dandridge …
Dandridge. There’s a statue of Dandridge on the Museum’s baseball field, and Willie Mays stared at it through the chicken wire. You know when Willie Mays was a minor league playing in Minneapolis, Ray Dandridge was there too. He was in his late 30s by then, his career mostly behind him, but he was so good as a hitter (he hit .362, .311 and .324 in those years when batting average meant everything) and so smooth and beautiful a third baseman that the story goes that when the Giants told the Minneapolis team they wanted to bring up Mays, the response was “as long as you keep Ray Dandridge here.”
The Negro Leagues Museum was a place to tell those kinds of stories. For a long time, of course, the one doing most of the telling was an extraordinary man named Buck O’Neil. He did not build the museum himself — there were a lot of heroes in that painstaking story. But the museum was built in his spirit, and from my point of view it was his single-handed charm and force of will and humanity that made the museum a national success. He would be there all the time, ready to take strangers on tours. “Well, come on then,” he’d say, and people did.
A couple of years ago — and I wrote about this at the time — I broke with the museum. Well, that makes it sound more dramatic than it was. I had no official capacity with the museum — and you can’t really break from where you aren’t. I just loved the place, so I hosted most of their events, and I promoted them whenever I could, and we donated money, and I asked for many of my speaking fees to be donated to the museum and so on. I did this for friends like Buck, for my love baseball history, but more than anything because for me, the museum really was a place of imagination and, as much as anything, I believe in imagination.
A couple of years ago, though, things changed. I don’t want or need to go into it. The only part that matters now is that my dear friend Bob Kendrick — who was chosen by Buck O’Neil to run the museum after he died — was passed over and treated with contempt. I want to believe that this was done more out of blindness and arrogance than anything, but I don’t know that. I don’t want to know. I only know they made someone else president. They pointedly moved the museum away from the vision of Buck O’Neil. They lost their spirit (and a lot of money). It was reported and whispered, the museum moved to the brink of collapse. Imagination was gone.
And I stopped going to the place, stopped standing outside the chicken wire, stopped looking at the field and imagining. Every now and again, someone would ask me to come back, and they might even invoke Buck’s name … but Buck was the very reason I could not go back. The way I saw it, the museum was no longer about Buck. It no longer shared his vision, his singular purpose, his wonder, his joy. I stayed away.
Thursday, they will announce that Bob Kendrick has been named President of the Negro Leagues Museum. Bob had left the museum to run the Kansas City office of the National Sports Center for the Disabled. He loved working there — such wonderful people. But not too long ago, the board of directors seemed to realize what they had done, and they came to Bob and asked him to come back, to help the museum find its core again, to return the place to what Buck O’Neil stands for, to make it again a place of imagination.
I don’t want to speak for Bob … but I think I know his heart a little bit. He knows how hard it will be to make the museum successful again. He knows how the museum will have to do it without Buck, with a sluggish economy and with more than a few broken relationships to mend. He also knows that the board passed him over once before in a process that, well, the less said about it the better. He knows that the odds are stacked against the museum.
But … he also knows that the odds have always been stacked against the museum. It has always been a challenge to convince people that they should care about a baseball league that died a half century ago, a league of mostly unknown players from those days before Jackie Robinson stole home. It has always been a challenge to convince people that Josh Gibson might have been more powerful than Ruth, that Satchel Paige might have been more dominant than Koufax, that Oscar Charleston might have been better than Mays. It has always been hard to tease the imagination.
He knows all that, but more than anything else he knows that this museum is in his blood. He was working for the museum before it had a building. He was with Buck selling the stories before anyone knew who Buck was. He was there in meeting rooms, time and again, explaining to bored and cynical executives why they wanted to be part of this story, why they NEEDED to be part of this story, why the Negro Leagues were not about black athletes, why the Leagues were not about racism, why the leagues were not even about baseball. No, the Negro Leagues were about America, and looking through the chicken wire, and dreaming as big as the sky.
I tell a story in my book The Soul of Baseball about a time Bob, Buck and I were in the Atlanta airport, and we came upon an up escalator that wasn’t moving. We had to get upstairs, of course, and Bob wisely suggested we take the elevator. Buck, in a rare unwise moment, said we could make the walk.
And so we began climbing, step after step after step, and about a quarter of the way up I already started to feel winded. Admittedly, I was in terrible shape, but I was also 56 years younger than Buck. Bob started to sweat through his suit. And Buck … well, Buck did not look too good. Halfway up, we were even worse, but there was no going down at that point and we all knew it. What we did not know, seriously did not know, was whether Buck could make it. But we kept trudging, step by step, until finally and extraordinarily we reached the top. Buck sat down for a long time before he had enough wind to go again. I wanted to plant a flag by the Cinnabon.
Every time Bob or I come to an escalator in the Atlanta airport, we call each other to remember that absurd climb. Sure, it’s corny and overly simple to compare that climb to the climb of the Negro Leagues Museum from a one-room office with a scrapbook to a multi-million dollar building on the famous corner of 18th and Vine to a place beloved across the country and recognized by Presidents. But we do it just the same.
“Joe,” Bob said to me, and I don’t think he will mind me telling you this, “I’ve been offered the job to run the Museum. I have mixed emotions, and I know it’s a real challenge, but I know it’s the right thing to do. I know it’s what Buck would have wanted.”
“You’re right. It is what Buck would have wanted.”
“I’m going to need help.”
“You don’t even need to ask, Bob.”
And we talked for a long time about all sorts of things — baseball, community, family — but we especially talked about Buck and how he had this dream that there would be a museum to help people imagine what it was like when some of the best baseball players who ever lived played passionate games in their own league on dusty fields while most of America turned away. Buck is gone. His dream has flickered, but I hope it is still very much alive.
To join the Negro Leagues Museum, please go here. Memberships run for as little as $25.