A report last week from the New York Times indicates that Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has found some equilibrium after struggling for many years to stay afloat financially. The museum opened in 1991 and for many years was guided by the steady hands of former Negro Leagues player and manager Buck O’Neil, who was a Kansas City icon and a true ambassador for the Negro Leagues and its history. Located in the historic 18th & Vine district of Kansas City, the museum sits adjacent to the American Jazz Museum. The area is known for its important role in American jazz music as well as being the historic center of the African-American community in Kansas City. Since the death of Buck O’Neil in 2006, however, the museum’s leadership had struggled mightily to find the right financial balance that would secure a future for the museum.
Buck O’Neil played most of his career for the Kansas City Monarchs, and managed them as well. He was a strong promoter and the public face of the museum, and people trusted him. After his death, the museum had trouble finding the right voice to carry the organization forward. The museum is a privately funded, non-profit operation. Therefore, it relies on the support of the community and visitors to stay open. I’ve been to the museum twice, and the last time I was there, I made sure to spend some money on souvenirs and also drop some cash in the donation box. At the time, the uncertainty surrounding the museum was palpable. 18th and Vine is not far from downtown Kansas City or Kauffman Stadium, home of the Royals, but the impression was that people were unaware of the museum or for whatever reason weren’t coming in large numbers.
According the Times article, that has changed with the return of Bob Kendrick, a close friend of Buck O’Neil and the museum’s former marketing director. Now the president, Kendrick has repaired the disconnect between the museum and its community and sponsors that had left the museum’s growth paralyzed. Bolstered by events regarding the Jackie Robinson biopic “42”, the major league All-Star game in Kansas City and support from the city and state, the museum now finds itself on solid financial ground on which it will be able to strengthen and grow its community ties.
The Negro Leagues operated at their peak from about 1920 into the 1950s, when the major leagues began to integrate more fully. But the museum relates more than just the history of various leagues; it tells the story of African-Americans in baseball prior to integration, and the struggles they went through to play the game they loved at a very high level while being shut out of the ‘official’ game. Through exhibits of memorabilia, baseballs, uniforms, photos and other artifacts, the museum tells a story that started in the late 1800s. From “Rube” Foster and Josh Gibson to Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, visitors will find a wealth of knowledge and come away with a new appreciation for the Negro Leagues and all its great teams and players. The museum made me a much more knowledgeable baseball fan and shifted the paradigm for me. The major leagues are not the only leagues that ever mattered.
The Brewers have paid tribute to the Milwaukee Bears of the Negro Leagues in recent years. Of course, the Milwaukee Bears played one season in the Negro Leagues, a near-total failure of a campaign in 1923 before they were disbanded. There wasn’t much about the tiny Bears’ contribution to the Negro Leagues when I was there last, but that shouldn’t stop you from heading down to the museum. Kansas City is only an eight-hour drive or so from Milwaukee, and that means that this baseball gem in the middle of the nation is closer to Brewers fans than it is to many people in the country. Get down there sometime; enjoy some of the great food in Kansas City and its other attractions, like the National World War 1 Museum. Catch a Royals game. But make sure to stop in at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. You won’t regret it.