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Rush Singer Geddy Lee
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a draw for major league players each summer when they come to town to play the Royals. But it also occasionally draws celebrities from other fields, such as Geddy Lee, lead singer of Canadian rock band Rush. Kendrick recalls that a friend brought Lee — a fixture at Toronto Blue Jays games for many years — to the museum when he was in town several years ago for a show. "Like most who come, he fell in love with the place," Kendrick says. Not long after that, Lee wanted to donate some balls signed by Negro league players.
"His office calls and says, 'Geddy has a few baseballs he'd like to donate. Would you all like to have them?' " Kendrick recalls. "Naturally, we said yes, but we were thinking it would be three or four balls. It turned out to be 200."
Then Lee donated more.
"He has since donated an additional lot of 200, giving the museum one of the largest collections of single-signed Negro league player baseballs, and it's all due to the benevolence of one Geddy Lee, a white Canadian rocker," Kendrick says. "There are Hall of Famers' signatures on those baseballs, there are guys who were cup-of-coffee guys in the Negro Leagues, but they're all important because they're all part of the story."
Grand Stand Theater
The first thing visitors to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum do is grab a seat on the bleachers in the Grand Stand Theater and watch They Were All Stars, a 15-minute film narrated by James Earl Jones.
"It's must-see," Kendrick says. "It prepares you for what you're going to see when you enter the gallery."
The video sets the stage for what Kendrick calls the real beginning of the civil rights movement in the late 1930s and early 1940s, just before Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier.
"The film starts off, as a baseball game would, with the singing of the national anthem," Kendrick says. "Think about that. You're going back to this era of segregation, and, to me, it demonstrates how passionate these men were about their country. So much so that they wanted to fight for their country. They're playing its pastime, even though America was trying to prevent them from playing its pastime. Yet, that song that symbolizes patriotism for our country — the kid singing it is in a Monarchs uniform — it just gives you goose bumps."
Kendrick says They Were All Stars also lets visitors know the emotional tenor of the museum.
"If you're coming here to witness a very sad, somber story, you've got the wrong place," he says. "This is a celebration. It's the celebration of the power of the human spirit to persevere and prevail. So the story here is not in the adversity; it's in what they did to overcome the adversity."
The Major League Section
Kendrick says the major league section of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is where visitors come to realize the full impact of the Negro Leagues on baseball history.
"The toughest thing for people to understand is that there were two professional baseball leagues operating simultaneously," Kendrick says. "One, we know everything about — the major leagues. The other, the Negro Leagues, we know very little about. But both were very professional leagues. So when you get to the major leagues section of our exhibition, that's when the light comes on. Because now, all of a sudden, you see these guys that became household names at the major league level, but their careers began in the Negro Leagues."
Kendrick says patrons are routinely surprised to find out that Hank Aaron started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns and Willie Mays' career began with the Birmingham Black Barons. A collection of baseball cards of players who made the transition from the Negro Leagues to MLB is what makes people realize the depth of the Negro Leagues.
"You get that 'aha' moment. All of a sudden it clicks, just how good the guys were in the Negro Leagues," he says.