The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is packed with members of the Kansas City press, local politicians and business leaders, who mix among life-size statues of such Negro League greats as Pop Lloyd and Leon Day on March 20. The lights flick off. Two large TVs show the trailer for 42, the new Jackie Robinson biopic.
Harrison Ford, playing Branch Rickey, signs Robinson (the handsome Chadwick Boseman) to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, making him the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. It feels like an injection of goose bumps.
As Jay-Z's "Brooklyn (Go Hard)" bumps, outraged white people tell Robinson he doesn't belong, the color-barrier-breaking infielder slugs a home run, and spectators at last cheer him. The audience applauds as the screens dissolve into an image of Boseman, as Robinson, sliding in the dirt under the slogan, "Before he was a legend, he was a Monarch," a nod to Robinson's stint with the Negro Leagues' Kansas City team.
Then comes the big reveal: The 70-year-old Ford is scheduled to introduce special screenings of 42 at the AMC Barrywoods in Kansas City April 11. The showings are the only ones outside Los Angeles before the film's April 12 nationwide release. Also in attendance: Boseman; Major League Baseball players; and sportswriter Joe Posnanski, who conducts a Q&A with Bob Kendrick, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president.
Tickets to the special screenings, ranging from $42 to $1,000, have sold out. The money benefits the Negro Leagues Museum and the Kansas City Sports Commission.
"It's the job of the Kansas City Sports Commission to interweave athletics with the life of our city and bring athletics to the fore," says Tom Butch, chairman of the Sports Commission's executive committee. "And this certainly fulfills that organizational directive."
The Sports Commission was founded in 1966, aided by Ewing Kauffman, with an early directive to sell Chiefs season tickets and lobby Major League Baseball for a team. The nonprofit relies on private funding, corporate sponsorships, membership dues and entry fees to its 25 annual events, such as numerous 5k runs, the Waddell & Reed Kansas City Marathon, and the WIN for KC Triathlon. The commission is also charged with bringing marquee sporting events to the metro.
Those duties fall on commission president Kathy Nelson, who, with her 10 employees, put in long hours for March Madness. They helped the city host basketball tournaments between March 4 and 24 for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Big 12, as well as the NCAA men's basketball tournament's KC regional. As those games played out in the Sprint Center and Municipal Auditorium, Nelson and the commission's staff were busy planning the next event.
The commission's work isn't always glamorous; the volunteers and interns do grunt work, shuttling sports-media members among the Sprint Center, Municipal Auditorium and hotels; posting game scores from around the nation in hotel lobbies; giving directions; and serving as bouncers during VIP parties for sponsors and city officials at the Power & Light District's Shark Bar. During the KC regional, a photo of Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson drinking in the party district went viral after the Rebels beat the Wisconsin Badgers. (Nelson says Henderson wasn't at a commission party.)
"You never know if you might be working with a 6-year-old, teaching them volleyball and basketball, or you might be bouncing at one of the VIP parties," Nelson says. "Or you could easily be driving the KU men's basketball coach from his hotel to Sprint Center."
The city's power brokers acknowledge that the commission's work is essential to keeping the city's sports calendar full.