Tuesday, September 01, 2009

My Conversation With Bob Kendrick--The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

"I tell people all the time, I think the story of The Negro Leagues embodies The American Spirit unlike any story in the annals of American History. It is everything we pride ourselves on about being American. This is about pride. This is about passion. It’s about courage. It’s about perseverance. It is about the refusing of accepting the notion that you are unfit to do anything."

Those wonderful words spoken by Bob Kendrick, Vice President Of Marketing, at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. On the heels of our trip to Pittsburgh and visit with Sean Gibson at The Josh Gibson Foundation, it just so happened I was heading to Kansas City for business one week later where an opportunity arose to visit The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Having been to K.C. four times previously over the past eight years, I have never had to opportunity before to visit this most cherished of monuments telling the story of Black Baseball's History In America. And when mentioned to Sean Gibson my ideas about visiting and pursuing a few stories--he readily jumped on board--and put me in contact with Mr. Kendrick.

The entire experience could not have been better. Come on over when you get here, let's talk, said Bob, and we shall show you around. Did they ever!! Nearly six hours after I arrived at the corner of 18th & Vine in the historic Paseo Section of Kansas City on August 11th, only the real business that took me to K.C. in the first place, took me away from The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. What was presented, displayed and talked about during my time there turned into one of my best educational experiences ever at any museum.

Nothing sugarcoated here folks. The triumphs and glory of professional black baseball is wonderfully displayed, right alongside the bigotry and segregation that led directly to The Negro Leagues very existence. The trials and tribulations of playing baseball in the time of black only diners/hotels and restrooms--all surrounding the "Field Of Legends". Life Size Statues placed on a mini baseball diamond inside The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Iconic Statues of Black Baseball's Greatest!! They were just TERRIFIC!!

But you have to start somewhere and at 9:30AM that August 11th, Bob and I met in his conference room for the first of two chats. This was the preliminary discussion--get an idea of what the museum is all about. Then he let me loose to browse anything of interest. During that tour, Dr. Raymond Doswell, Vice President Of Curatorial Services sat down with me in the "Field Of Legends" for a solid history lesson of The Negro Leagues. And finally, after all my touring was completed and the shopping was finished at The Museum Gift Shop, Bob Kendrick and I got together one final time for a good 30-minute chat discussing and going over what was witnessed by me that day. Mr. Kendrick answered all my many questions while getting the word out about the importance of The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum which--fittingly--shares a space with The American Jazz Museum. A match some would say was made in heaven.

Just sorry that Sohna could not be with me on this trip. She enjoyed our visit to The National Baseball Hall Of Fame in January, 2008. But you can bet, we are going to make a second trip back. She has got to witness all The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum provides.

So, you probably guessed by now with The Josh Gibson Field Story yesterday and The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Posts beginning today--this week is Negro Leagues Week On Nats320. There is so much to cover here there will be a few more posts to follow. And to get things started, here is the first of two chats with Bob Kendrick, Vice-President of Marketing of The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

With all that important preamble out of the way--here we go:

“We will be celebrating our 20th Anniversary next year. We are in the midst of planning a major 20-year anniversary for the full year in 2010. This is a tremendous milestone for a museum of this nature because we are as grass roots of an organization, as you will ever encounter. We started this museum in a conference space--about as big as this conference room we are sitting in right now and talking (laughter)--across the street inside the old historic Lincoln Building. And it has been amazing to personally witness the growth of this museum. Obviously, through the hard work of a lot of people who believed in this project, and would not give up on this project for what it represented. Of course, all led by the late Buck O’Neil, who was so instrumental in the rise of this great museum. So, it’s been a tremendous journey for us. And we hope that this is the first of many 20 Years to come.”

Has it surprised you how well this museum has flourished? (SBF)

“From day one, we thought we had something special. There is no question, from the onset when we started this project; we thought we had something special. But what we have certainly come to realize is that IT IS EXTREMELY SPECIAL. And people who have encountered this—it has almost been like a life changing experience for a lot of those people. And for most of those folks, whether you are a baseball fan or not, chances are you are being introduced to this great piece of American History for the very first time. So, while some have come and have been absolutely fascinated by what they have experienced here, they have also left a little dismayed because they just now had the opportunity to learn this. They leave questioning why didn’t I know this when I was going to school? Why wasn’t this information there for me when I was going through my formal education? And that is the next chapter for the museum--we want to re-write the history books. This story should be included in the pages of American History Books. It is a travesty that we have gone through our education not knowing about the illustrious history of The Negro Leagues and its impact in sparking social change in our country. So, I think this is one of the most important and greatest stories not to be in the pages of American History Books.”

You just touched on a major point about this museum. You have Black-Americans who are proud of this museum. (Yes, definitely—Bob). Then you have White-Americans being hit with the “WOW” Factor. This was the way it really was. (SBF)

“No question, but there is this common bond between the two that leads to the appreciation of the power of the human spirit. That is what this story is all about. These great athletes who persevered through the face of tremendous adversity to build this great baseball enterprise that would have far reaching ramifications in terms of a lot of aspects of American culture. And I think there is a shared bond there, even though for African-Americans, you are right—there is this overwhelming SENSE OF PRIDE!! But, I think for White-Americans there is an overwhelming sense of pride again when you begin to look at what these athletes were able to accomplish in the face of adversity. Segregation was a shameful period in this country’s history. There is no question about that. So it is interesting to see when young people come in (to the museum), they see segregation very simply—that was dumb. (Chuckling). Really, that is how they see it. That’s how they see it. But it is important that we allow our children to look back in time if they are to appreciate how far we have come. And to have institutions like this that empowers them to take the next step to where we need to go in the future. Understand, there is still work to be done in this country as we continue to try to improve race relations in our country.”

“In this story, we simplify segregation just by telling it through the eyes of black baseball players. But what I think happens for all of our visitors here is this overwhelming sense of just how great our country really is because The Negro Leagues could have only happened in America. Even though it is anchored in the ugliness of segregation, out of segregation came this tremendous story of triumph and conquest. I tell people all the time, I think the story of The Negro Leagues embodies The American Spirit unlike any story in the annals of American History. It is everything we pride ourselves on about being American. This is about pride. This is about passion. It’s about courage. It’s about perseverance. It is about the refusing of accepting the notion that you are unfit to do anything. And so in the case of these great athletes—if you won’t let me play with you—I will create a league of my own.”

“That league would then rise to rival, and in many cities, surpass Major League Baseball in popularity and in attendance. They were outdrawing many Major League Baseball Teams. And think about that for a moment—that IS THE AMERICAN WAY. That is absolutely The American Way. So, in essence, even though it was America that was trying to prevent them from sharing in the joys of the so-called “National Pastime”, it was The American Spirit that allowed them to persevere and prevail. And that is our story.”

It is also unique in that this is baseball. I don’t think anything similar or broad scope could have happened in basketball or football? (SBF)

“Absolutely, it would not have happened. That’s true. No way.”

You mention how some of the Negro League Teams outdrew some of the white teams. Look at The Washington Senators—when Clark Griffith rented out Griffith Stadium to The Homestead Grays--they beat The Senators consistently at the gate. And The Crawfords outdrew The Pirates in Pittsburgh. (SBF)

“Yes, that is also true.”

And The East-West All-Star Game was one of the largest continually attended games of all time. (SBF)

“As I have always said, that is the greatest sporting event in the history of America that no one knows anything about. To put 50,000 plus in Comiskey Park (Chicago White Sox Field) under any circumstances is a tremendous accomplishment. They (The Negro Leagues) were doing this with regularity and the late Buck O’Neil would tell me that black folks would come from as far west as Los Angeles—by train. As far south as New Orleans—by train. As far east as New York—by train. All converging on Chicago every year for that showcase event. Yet personally, no one really knows a whole lot about it.”

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum works alongside The Baseball Hall of Fame. One complements the other. When those 17 Negro League Greats & Owners were inducted three years ago—what did that mean for your museum? Did your museum’s effort have anything to do with that happening? (SBF)

“Yes, obviously we did. And Buck—from the onset—was adamant that this museum would be just that—not a Hall of Fame—for that very reason. Buck felt that if you were good enough—you should be in The National Baseball Hall Of Fame. So, that was our mission from the onset—to help elevate the awareness and the consciousness of this history to the point where these athletes would be recognized in The National Baseball Hall Of Fame. Because—contrary to what most people believe--The National Baseball Hall Of Fame is not The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. People do think that. And while certainly, the majority of the players going in there are from The Major Leagues, it is there (in Cooperstown) to recognize greatness in all areas of baseball. So it was fitting that the doors would eventually open for these athletes of The Negro Leagues because, again, I think the most difficult thing for us, even today, is to convince people there were two separate baseball leagues operating in the country at the same time. One you know everything about (The Major Leagues) and the other—you know virtually nothing about—The Negro Leagues. But they were both professional. The Major Leagues gave the best white athletes the opportunity to do their thing. The Negro Leagues did the exact same thing for the best black and hispanic baseball players to showcase their skills as well. And so Buck knew that. He had the wisdom and the insight to understand that instead of focusing on a Hall Of Fame (in Kansas City), he knew, we knew--we had a finite history. So we chose the museum route. It was much, much more important for us to preserve, celebrate and educate the pubic to this history than it was to try to build a competing Hall Of Fame. And Cooperstown is absolutely the right place for these men to be recognized in that level.”

Is it sad that Buck O’Neil is not in The Hall Of Fame? (SBF)

(Softly) “Yes.”

Just after The Hall enshrined those 17 Greats into Cooperstown, he passed away a few months later. (SBF)

“He died two months after he spoke on behalf of the 17 who got in (at the Cooperstown Enshrinement). And much has been said about that ill-fated decision, and I certainly coin it that way because I think it was. I would have hoped the committee that made that decision voted with their minds. If they believe Buck O’Neil didn’t deserve to be in The Hall Of Fame then there is not much I can say about that. But I think, all of us, who have a clear understanding of what Buck’s role was in this game of baseball—on all facets—to me—if Buck O’Neil is not a Hall Of Famer, there is no such thing as a Hall Of Famer. He has done everything you can do for the good of the game. No one has done it better. From every single facet of the game, as a player, as a manager, as a coach, as a scout, as an ambassador—and his ambassador role was not just on The Negro Leagues. Certainly, he is responsible for many embracing The Negro Leagues. But Buck promoted baseball whether it was on the sandlot, whether they were in Japan, or The Dominican, or here in Our Country. It didn’t matter. He just loved promoting the game of baseball. He was a tireless promoter of this game. He helped people come to this sport. So when you look at his career over his seven decades in baseball—it was almost unfathomable that he WOULD NOT get that call (to The Hall Of Fame). So it was obviously disappointing to not only us here in Kansas City, but to baseball fans around the world.”

Buck O’Neil is the very reason why The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is here in Kansas City? (SBF)

“No question about it. If you wanted to pinpoint someone who was singularly most responsible for the building of this museum—it would be Buck. And that is not to think less of all the people who have been involved in elevating this project. But here is the guy who was out front. He was the guy that people fell in love with and that people rallied around to help us generate the kind of awareness and funding that we needed to make this museum a reality.”

Let’s talk a little about The Negro League Owners. In many respects they were running a real business? (SBF)

“These were entrepreneurs, many had their own wealth from other aspects of business and baseball became a secondary stream of revenue for them. This was big business and I don’t think people understand that. You hear all these misnomers associated with The Negro Leagues, but Negro League Baseball was the third largest black owned business in this country during that era of segregation. So this was a thriving business enterprise. Rest assured, wherever you had successful black baseball, you had thriving black economy.”

Is it by chance or is it by choice, that The American Jazz Museum is sharing space in the very same building here in Kansas City? (SBF)

“Yeah, it actually happened by happenstance really. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. We were actually going to be separate buildings and there wasn’t enough bond money to finance The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, The Black Archives of Mid-America and The American Jazz Museum. So we consolidated and put The Negro Leagues Museum and The American Jazz Museum in one building and it really became a stroke of genius. An absolute stroke of genius. People are somewhat surprised by the correlation between the two. But when you walk into and delve into it a little bit deeper, there is a strong connection between baseball and jazz. When you make your way through the museum today, you will see images of people like Louis Armstrong—who had is very own semi-pro team. Cab Calloway had his own semi-pro team. You will see photos of Lena Horne throwing out the first pitch at an All-Star Game. Lionel Hampton surrounded by members of The Kansas City Monarchs. In fact, the late Buck O’Neil would put Lionel Hampton in a Monarchs Uniform and he would serve as an honorary coach. He (Lionel) loved Negro League Baseball. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was once the owner of The New York Black Yankees. So that correlation between baseball and jazz and entertainment was always strong.”

With that final answer--Bob Kendrick needed to head off to a meeting we were now overlapping. "But you go look around," he said. "Ask any questions and I will get back with you later to continue this discussion." So off I went to discover The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. A total treat awaited.

More to come in Part Two.

All Photos shot at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum--Copyright Nats320--All Rights Reserved. Courtesy and Usage granted by The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City, Missouri. No reproduction or usage granted without written permission of Nats320 & The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Buck O'Neil Photos--from stories linked in the post.


SenatorNat said...

If there were a Roberto Clemente award for baseball blogs which are attempting to help educate, preserve history, and promote understanding and community, I nominate Nats320 for it. This is just another outstanding expose of a wonderful place which gets little national publicity.

Growing up, as a young baseball addict, I read what little there was on the subject of the Negro Leagues My impression is that is was widely acknowledged by whites as a big league enterprise, and of course, Major Leaguers often tested their skills with exhibition games with Negro Leaguers and the like. Jackie Robinson's bio "Baseball Did It" traces a bit of this, for example.

My lament, expressed herein previously and misunderstood by one commenter is that we have arrived at a bizarre point of de facto segregation since so many talented AAs prefer to concentrate on pro football and basketball careers due to the lack of baseball infrastucture coming up I believe. And, thus, we lose some of the interface discussed between black music artists, actors, and the like, who are more disposed to follow the other sports. The really cool part of the curator's discussion is how prominent black artists and businessmen were tied into the Negro Leagues. Now, we all know about Spike Lee's rabid attachment to the Knicks for example - but not as much for the Yankees. This isn't unique to AA artists - generally, Hollywood, etc., seems to prefer Basketball and Football as more relevant.

I don't know how the legacy of segregation may only now be having at least a subconscious chilling effect on African American interest and participation in MLB - there are generations of longstanding Washingtonians who root for the Cowboys in part as a protest v. their home team remaining segregated until the Supreme Court acted to integrate it (about the same time the Cowboys came into existance).

And, let us not forget that Calvin Griffith moved the Senators out at the precisely the same juncture (circa 1960-61) to Minnesota, with some claiming that he foresaw similar pressures coming to bear on his preference to cater to white fans...

And, without placing any finger of blame on any one individual associated with the current Nats brass, the way Frank Robinson was shown to the door at the end of 2006, and the fact that no statue or other symbol was contemplated in Centerfield Plaza to symbolize the Nationals with his likeness has not helped cultivate a broader base of fans for the Nats in today's environment.

Race is always the touchiest of subjects - and, as a middle aged white guy I may not have the proper understanding of what I opine here as possible cause and effect; but I do know that de facto segregation (with only 8% of MLB players now black) cannot make for a better game and a better experience in the stands. You do not want a situation whereby AA's represented in the Hall of Fame are indeed a "museum-like" feature, since their are precious modern counterparts playing now to become eligible for future induction.

This isn't a stereotypical (patronizing) statement about one race being better athletes than another - it is a statement about how generations ago, driven by segregation, the black community devised a competing enterprise which was comparable to MLB and was an integral reason why baseball was considered America's Pastime. Now, we have the worst of both possible worlds evolving - de facto segregation but no alternative vista either...And, as a result, this may in part be why MLB is not characterized as America's Pastime by younger generations.

Trust in Buck. And the Almighty Dollar to level all things. All together, now.

Anonymous said...

Sounds so exciting!!!Thanks for taking us along. PP

Jay said...

Great job Nats320!

Do you have an update on the screening of the Josh Gibson documentary?


Screech's Best Friend said...

Jay: The documentary is still in final edit. Sean says he will keep Sohna and I informed of when the premiere dates will be. And we will pass them on to anyone interested.