Five gems to see at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Five must-see gems at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum 

Five gems to see at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

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Angela C. Bond

On a recent Monday afternoon, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick is running late. As Major League Baseball's All-Star Game approaches, Kendrick is taking meetings and giving interviews at a dizzying pace. One of the little sentimental joys of waiting in his office lobby is reading the framed sports page from August 6, 1994, covering the opening of the museum's new space in the 18th and Vine Jazz District. The headline announces the Royals winning their 14th straight game.

Kendrick says he's been talking with USA Today and a Fox Sports scouting team. The network is going to run a piece about the museum during the pregame show.

"We could never afford to buy that [exposure]," he says of his operation, which has a staff of eight.

Kendrick says the museum isn't going to squander Kansas City's five days in the center of the baseball universe. His staff is training 50 volunteers to work at both the museum and a display at the MLB All-Star FanFest at Bartle Hall. And the museum is spending about $100,000 to spruce up its facilities. This afternoon, the carpet is still damp from a cleaning, and a crew is laying new carpet in the museum store.

"You can't invite people over to your house without getting your house clean," says Kendrick, who took over as president in May 2011. "We're going through some major housecleaning right now."

Kendrick is optimistic that the game and special museum events will attract visitors from FanFest and from their hotels to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

"There is so much riding on this game for the museum," he says. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum."

Kendrick carved an hour out of his schedule to highlight five must-see attractions for baseball fans and tourists.

Field of Legends

"It all starts with the Field of Legends," Kendrick says. The mock baseball diamond features 10 statues of Negro Leagues greats who have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"What makes this display so powerful is that these life-size statues are cast in position, as if they were playing the game. That's the centerpiece of the exhibition," Kendrick says. "It's one of the most compelling displays in any museum anywhere in the world."

Ty Cobb–Jackie Robinson Signed Ball

Ty Cobb was one of the first players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For decades, he held the MLB record for most career hits. He was one of the best ever to pick up a bat. He was also a known racist. The guy once picked a fight with a black groundskeeper, then strangled the groundskeeper's wife when she tried to break it up. That makes a baseball signed by Cobb and former Negro Leagues players Jackie Robinson, James "Junior" Gilliam, Joe Black and Roy Campanella a real oddity.

"Cobb, of course, was one of the greatest players in Major League Baseball history, but he's also held as the majors' most racist player," Kendrick says. "Cobb really didn't like anybody — black, white, blue, green, red. He didn't like anybody during his playing days. He mellowed as he got a little bit older."

The mystery of the ball is whether Cobb knew that his signature was sharing space on the horsehide with the autographs of four black men. "What we don't know is the sequence of the signatures," Kendrick says. But the leading theory is that Cobb got to the ball first. "The late, great Buck O'Neil used to say, 'I know Cobb signed that ball first!' " Kendrick says.

Rush Singer Geddy Lee
Donated Balls

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.

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