America, Racism and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

The historical fact of the Negro Leagues has long presented a complex of challenges to Major League Baseball and its fans. On the one hand, that such a Jim Crow institution ever existed, that its founders were forced to create it, is an enormously sad fact, properly engaged with a sense of bitterness, indeed disgust. On the other hand, the institution of Negro League baseball itself, its players, teams and fans, earn neither bitterness nor disgust; Negro League games were very obviously vivid pageants of fun, high energy and excellence, and they deserve to be remembered and celebrated as such.

It’s taken MLB, its fans and the mainstream sports media a long time to figure out just exactly how to deal with the reality of the Negro Leagues. In the 1960s, when I was a kid, the subject was almost entirely ignored, and when mentioned, it was treated rather dismissively, the way one might embarrassedly shush away a crazy old uncle who comes stumbling and scratching into the living room when new friends are visiting. It took almost 40 years for Negro League stars to be seen as eligible to be considered for the honor of Hall of Fame induction.

The dynamic has shifted dramatically, of course. It’s become accepted, even hip, to not only acknowledge but sincerely celebrate the history of the Negro Leagues. Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary film, released in 1994, turned the strikingly photogenic and charismatic Buck O’Neil into something of a mainstream celebrity. And today, thanks in large part to the persistent leadership and star power of the redoubtable O’Neil himself, there exists a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Museum

Last week business took me to Kansas City, and I paid my first visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I’m delighted to report that this museum is completely gorgeous, a marvelous place. Its visitor is richly rewarded with an experience that’s at once comfortably welcoming, colorfully captivating and intellectually stimulating. If you’ve ever wondered if this attraction would be worth your time, if it would repay the investment of a stopover in Kansas City and the devotion of a couple of hours, wonder no longer. My advice is, enthusiastically: make the stop and visit the museum the next time the opportunity presents itself. You’ll be glad you did.

I’m a fancier of museums of all kinds—art museums, science museums, history museums—I seek them all out. You might infer therefore that I’m a softie, an easy mark for museums, but honestly I don’t think that’s the case. Since I’ve visited so many, all over the U.S. and in other countries, I believe it’s fair to say I’ve developed a rather high museum standard. The mere display of interesting artifacts won’t cut it. To please me, a museum must add value, it must take its inherently interesting content and make it come alive, presenting the content in such a way that the presentation itself is a major element of interest. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum meets this standard with élan; it’s a wonderfully designed and executed display. Sincerely, it’s difficult to imagine how it could be done any better than it is.

It isn’t a large place; it doesn’t feature anything close to half the exhibit space of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. But the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum makes maximum use of its environment. It isn’t crowded, but neither is there any wasted space. The basic design is quite ingenious. The centerpiece attraction is the “Field of Legends,” a mock baseball diamond featuring an exquisitely rendered life-sized bronze statue of an all-time great Negro Leaguer at every position. Satchel Paige is pitching, with Josh Gibson catching and Martin Dihigo at bat. Playing first base is Buck Leonard, at second is Ray Dandridge, at shortstop John Henry Lloyd, at third Judy Johnson, in left field Cool Papa Bell, in center field Oscar Charleston, and in right field Leon Day. Managing the crew, alertly surveying the action with his foot poised upon the imaginary dugout step, is O’Neil.

The visitor enters the museum and sees this magically inviting tableau, but cannot enter it. A sequence of exhibits leads the visitor around the Field of Legends, starting at the first base side and circling it in a counter-clockwise path (metaphorically rounding the bases, if you will). The exhibits are terrific, presenting just the right balance of physical artifacts (gloves, balls, uniforms, scorecards and so forth) with explanatory text, photos, video and audio. The tricky tasks of educating while entertaining and of addressing both the sweet and bitter aspects of Negro League reality are handled with aplomb. Children over the age of 10 or so, especially those with an interest in baseball but really any with an appreciation for history, will have a good time and learn something.

One of the final exhibits is perhaps the best: “Legends’ Lockers” displays, for every Negro Leaguer so far inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a mockup locker, with one of the great’s vintage uniforms colorfully displayed on a hanger, along with photos and career information. The Cooperstown Hall, tremendous as it is, could well benefit from a similar mode of display, which brings each star’s humanity to palpable life.

And then, a couple of exhibits later, the visitor is finally allowed to enter the Field of Legends from the left field corner. The player statues are hauntingly lifelike, all the more for their full-sized verisimilitude and our ability to examine them up close from 360 degrees. One gets a real sense of what these guys were like. I’m a pretty big fellow myself, taller than most of these great old athletes, but Satchel Paige towers over me, in gaunt, wiry toughness. The experience is electrifying.

18th and Vine

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is where it is, in Kansas City and on 18th Street, in the 18th-and-Vine neighborhood, for important historical reasons. It was in this city, and in this black district, that the mighty Rube Foster and others met in February 1920 and founded the Negro National League.

The establishment of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at this site in 1997 was part of an ambitious plan to revitalize the 18th-and-Vine district, to stimulate a regeneration of some of its Jazz-Age glory. Indeed, the Negro Leagues museum shares a building with the American Jazz Museum (which, while well done, I didn’t find to be nearly as clever or compelling as the baseball museum, and I’m a huge jazz fan). The 18th-and-Vine area of Kansas City was a verdant oasis in the parched desert of Jim Crow America, a fountain of black artistic and economic creativity, flowing with music and frolic and commerce and sin of all description.

I’d love to report that today the neighborhood surrounding 18th Street is blooming anew, but I cannot. The area surrounding the 18th-and-Vine district today remains, in a word, blighted. To be sure, there are far worse slums; this portion of Kansas City doesn’t approach the apocalyptic bombed-out look of parts I’ve seen of the Bronx, or Detroit, or (what used to be) New Orleans or for that matter some areas of San Francisco or Oakland. The vicinity of 18th-and-Vine appears to be more deserted and abandoned, than festering with vileness and misery. Save for a smattering of thrift stores, pawn shops and bail bond offerings, there appears to be almost no activity at all; there isn’t even much graffiti.

Indeed, the content of both the Negro League Museum and its Jazz Museum companion offers ironic commentary on the surrounding neighborhood. Both museums celebrate the richness and vibrancy of life in an African-American community shouldering the crushingly unfair burden of Jim Crow discrimination. Today, Jim Crow is long dead, a demise mourned by no one of conscience. Yet the 18th-and-Vine district of Kansas City sits amid a broad tract of bleak, inert economic and social ruin, in stark contrast to the bright, albeit tightly circumscribed, prosperity and vigor the all-black neighborhood displayed 75 or more years ago.

Where Are We Now?

Thus among the many questions confronting the visitor to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is the big one: just where are we today regarding the issues surrounding race in the U.S.? Too often, examination of the integration of baseball properly hails the courage of the pioneer Jackie Robinson, but then assumes something of a self-congratulatory tone, more than implying that everyone lived happily ever after. A similar dynamic often occurs in the discussion of larger racial issues as well, substituting Justice Thurgood Marshall or Rosa Parks or Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King for Robinson, and again closing on the presumption that bigotry was in our midst, that racial injustice was a national scandal, until a larger-than-life hero (Robinson/Marshall/Parks/King) came along and saved the day.

The truth is vastly more complicated, of course, and vastly less sanguine. A half century following Brown versus Board of Education, thousands of American public schools remain as racially segregated as ever—not by law, but instead by de facto residential segregation, and by the ability and desire of affluent white families to avoid the use of urban public schools altogether. A half century following the banishment of Jim Crow legal structures, business enterprises such as professional baseball are genuinely integrated, but racial ghettos such as that in Kansas City stubbornly persist in nearly every major American city.

The historical fact of the Negro Leagues still presents a complex of challenges to Major League Baseball and its fans. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a great institution, properly and beautifully honoring the rich history of that enterprise and its stars: African-Americans living noble, creative and successful lives despite the wrongs done them by Jim Crow. But the honor the rest of us pay to their legacy becomes deeper and stronger to the degree that we’re honest about what’s happened and continues to happen in the absence of Jim Crow. That kind of honesty is too rarely an element in the modern MLB’s and the modern mainstream culture’s feel-good celebration of Negro League Baseball.

Visit the museum; it’s fun and fascinating. Enjoy it as a baseball fan, and appreciate its contribution to the preservation and understanding of American history. Bring your kids and leverage the visit into your conversations about bigotry and justice. And ponder seriously the questions the experience raises.

References & Resources
Even if you’re unable to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, you can support it through membership. Click here for information.

No visit to Kansas City is complete, I’m sure, without a taste of that town’s legendary barbecue cuisine. A business colleague took me out to a quaint little old place, in the far southern hinterland district of KC known as Martin City, called Fiorella’s Jack Stack. Oh my. Spectacularly good. The side dish “Cheesy Corn Bake” was a surprise treat amid the gloriously sumptuous slow-cooked meats.

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