Wednesday, September 02, 2009

My Conversation With Curator Dr. Raymond Doswell--The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Rube Foster is the very reason The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's home is based in Kansas City, Missouri. On February 14, 1920, this Baseball Great--a pitcher, manager and eventual big time executive for the Chicago American Giants--personally rounded up businessman, mostly in the mid-west, to start up The Negro National League. An eight-team league formed at The Kansas City YMCA--a building that still exits--just a few short yards from The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's front door today.

From those humble beginnings, The Negro Leagues thrived in The United States Of America. Sure, there were the ups and downs, leagues folding, teams jumping elsewhere for more cash, but what Mr. Foster accomplished was the very first stable and legitimate competition for African-American Baseball Players in the first half of the 20th Century. A ground breaking league that would spawn five spinoffs (The Eastern Colored Leagues, American Negro League, East-West League, Negro Southern League and The Negro American League). All coming to life on the reassurances that African-Americans could play competitive baseball on a professional level and there was fan base wanting to see them perform.

As Bob Kendrick, The Vice-President of Marketing for The Negro Leagues Museum mentioned in our first installment, the American Spirit thrived in The Negro Baseball Leagues. A league structure that brought black baseball to major urban centers of these United States. Competition that displayed a high level of skill that also became centerpieces for economic development.

Make no mistake about it, The Negro Leagues were big business and if you ever have the opportunity to visit The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum--that very fact will be staring you down--face to face. But understand, there is no way in these posts on Nats320 that we could do justice to all the museum offers baseball fans, or those interested in the divided history that America offered back then. But what Sohna and I hope to do is peak your interest, give you the flavor, the hope and even a little bit of the turmoil that existed during the 40 Years of Baseball History's lesser known stories. Facts that should be never forgotten.

With that in mind, Dr. Raymond Doswell, The Vice-President Of Curatorial Services at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, sat down with me in the "Field of Legends" halfway through my personal tour. We discussed what I had personally witnessed at that point. Then, we got off on a tangent to talk more about modern day issues--the Negro League Throwback Days and how fewer and fewer African-Americans make up Major League Rosters each and every year of late. But then we returned to the importance of the very existence of the NLBM.

With that here is my conversation with Dr. Raymond Doswell, Vice President of Curatorial Services at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri which took place on August 11th, 2009.

Very early in the game you can see here at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum black players being integrated in the game. Then (Hall of Famer) Cap Anson comes along and he uses his power to put a stop to integrated baseball. Was he the most influential voice in getting blacks out of the game early? (SBF)

“I think he was among those. I believe other baseball players in general just did not want to accept African-Americans. And I think a number of communities, even those which might have an interest in these players—the communities outside of baseball--were not accepting them playing together. I am sure you saw some other quotes here that talked about players just not being inclined to playing with African-American Players. I think what is interesting is that, as time goes on, a number of players, especially superstar white players--when you get into the 1930’s, 40’s & 50’s, that attitude starts to change. But it has often been said that the regular guys, the average (white) ballplayers, they were the ones holding on to segregation. One because of their racial attitudes and two—you are going to be opening the floodgates for jobs now for everyday players. And they knew they would then have to compete with black players. That made integration (in baseball) a very slow process in general.”

It is also odd, from my perspective, that African-Americans in World War II are fighting overseas in Europe, basically to combat fascism. And yet when those African-American Soldiers returned to The United States, they can’t compete on the very same ball fields with White Americans. (SBF)

“There is a great deal of irony when you look at baseball and American society and how things were mirrored. You can go back to the Spanish-American War and World War 1 where African-American baseball players were heavily involved in those conflicts. Racism was such that the black regiments in World War 1 were commanded by whites and had to fight with The French in those battles. And there were a number of ballplayers like, David Malarcher and Spotwood Poles, who were a part of those regiments. And as you noted, the irony of black baseball players fighting the war against fascism and racism and not being able to afford certain rights at home in The United States is not lost on the black media. It is not lost on many white fans in this country. And I think it is especially, in World War II, when you really start to see things change—at least the attitudes of people in this country.”

It’s also interesting that you had a white owner like J.L. Wilkinson of The Kansas City Monarchs who helped push forward black baseball along with many other African-American Owners. Yet, you also had a business surrounding the game itself—hotels run by blacks; the restaurants run by blacks. It was a completely separate fabric of life. (SBF)

“This is what African-Americans had to do. They created their own world separate from the mainstream because that was what was left to them. In many respects, this is a story of people building institutions, baseball, jazz music, schools, churches and everything else outside the realm of segregation and oppression. But when it comes to something like baseball, they chose baseball. Maybe some of them should not have been playing baseball. They should have maybe been working in the factories and other types of things making real money (chuckling). But they (African-Americans) chose it because they enjoyed the game. They enjoyed watching the (New York) Yankees and (Boston) Red Sox and other teams too. But to see their own on the field and be able to support that meant a lot to them and their communities.”

Is it also ironic that you had an owner like Clark Griffith of The Washington Senators making money off The Homestead Grays by renting Cumberland Posey (Grays Owner) his stadium and receiving more gate receipts than he did with his very own team? (SBF)

“That is not lost on a number of historians. The economic impact of not only having black players perform better for your team, but to have the black fans come out and support them—is amazing. The Senators and Mr. Griffith benefited from The Negro Leagues and segregation in that way. The New York Yankees benefited from it. In fact, their benefit was two-fold. They (The New York Yankees) owned the Newark ballpark. The Newark Bears (Yankees Farm Club) would rent it to The Newark Eagles. They (Yankees) owned The Kansas City Blues and the ballpark that was here in Kansas City—which they rented to The Kansas City Monarchs. Teams in Detroit and other places (in the Major Leagues) also had agreements in place with Negro League Teams to get gate receipts and share monies from their games. And in the rare instances like in Pittsburgh with Gus Greenlee (Owner of The Pittsburgh Crawfords) who created Greenlee Field, and in Memphis with Martin Stadium and the Martin Brothers--they were the few teams that could control their own stadiums and build their own ballparks.”

With all that going on, why were Gus Greelee and Cum Posey arch rivals?

“Yeah. Arch rivals and with biographies so desperately contrasting. Greelee was a military veteran that came back (to The States) and became a businessman and Numbers Runners, but funded baseball because he had wealth. Posey was an educator and an athlete and by all accounts—a law abiding citizen (chuckling—in a good way). But was able to pull together talent to play baseball. And their successes ebbed and flowed in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, Posey had to turn to Numbers Runners to help support his team when they went to Washington. He needed that support because that was where the wealth was. But, by all accounts, both men were well respected in baseball and built some really great ball clubs.”

How important were reporters like Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith to The Negro Leagues? (SBF)

“You don’t want to underestimate the role of the media—especially those two guys for a number of reasons. Even though they were writing primarily for the African-American community and the African-American Press, they were there to try to play eyewitness to the success. And they did have the ears of some of the owners. They were respected. They covered baseball in general and they were respected in that regard to let the owners know that--hey here are some great guys (talent). And even when integration happened, someone like Lacy would get the chance to travel with those ballplayers. It was needed because players like Jackie Robinson had to stay all by himself. He didn’t have any teammates to stay with (once he joined The Montreal Royals and The Brooklyn Dodgers). And it was the reporters that were there to cover those times and even stay with them. On one hand that could present some media bias to some degree, but thank goodness they were there. It helped move the experiment along and it helped chronicle what happened so we have information on that important history.”

If I had gone to an East-West Game in Chicago during say 1935, would I have been the only white person there? (SBF)

“No. In Chicago, especially no considering the large crowds they were trying to attract at a big ballpark like that. Chicago no, maybe even the games played in New York City and Washington, D.C.--no either. Maybe, in the everyday game in New York City that might have been a Friday or Sunday game between The Black Yankees and another team, there were probably just a handful of whites. I say that because I was just telling someone else this the other day. I had a white patron come in and he said he lived right down the street from Yankee Stadium in The Bronx. We used to go to Yankee games all the time he said. But he had no clue they were playing black baseball games there on Sundays. “I could have gone. I could have been there!!” he said. “I could have seen it. Why did I not get a chance to see that?” He reflected back and he thought about what his dad would say about that. And when he would ask his father about those types of issues (segregation) his dad would respond: “We just don’t get together. It’s just something we just don’t do.” And this man didn’t understand it. And it was a shame. So, he knew he had missed out on something—especially after he came here to the museum and saw what this history was all about.”

Jumping forward to today, baseball has always been popular in The United States, but African-Americans probably have the lowest amount of participation in The Majors in many years these days. Can this museum do anything to help re-invigorate African-American youths to play baseball? I know you guys are involved with MLB’s RBI Program. (SBF)

“Just look around this museum and the great irony again is you see that this coach or this community loved this game. Not only did they love it, they made it a part of their lives. They made careers out of it. It was part of their community. It was part of their livelihoods. Where the museum gets involved is we just have to remind people that as baseball fans—this is your game. You (African-Americans) have ownership in baseball's greatness in this country as any other culture that is around here. At the same time, it is important to remind Major League and Minor League Baseball to invest in communities where people are who can love the game—if they only have the opportunity to do so. Hopefully, we will see more participation.”

“On one hand I am torn in this instance because if less blacks are playing baseball then hopefully they are becoming doctors, lawyers and teachers—what we need more of in this country—as opposed to football players and basketball players who everyone is wringing their hands about. But, if baseball can be a vehicle as a means to an end—if you are lucky enough to become a professional player making millions of dollars—that part of your career might last until you are around 40 (years of age). Sports should really be a springboard for doing something else because you still have the rest of your life to live. Hopefully another 30, 40, 50 or 60 years to make a contribution. And if you are in a unique position—especially if you become a major success—you can use your fame and popularity to really make a difference.”

“So, we just have to remind people that this museum is here to remind us that this is our game. This is the game we love and we can continue to love. And hopefully in that way, it helps wake up young people to consider baseball as a great activity. And remind those who are the "Powers That Be" in baseball that here is a community that once thrived in your game and you should not forget about them. Invest in these communities like we invest internationally in baseball. We invest in the Caribbean. And I want to make this point: A lot of people who talk about this see a huge distinction between African-Americans and Latinos in the game. I see that as still one whole cultural mix because we came through this together and that is something important to me personally. Yet, MLB and others make major investments in those places (abroad) for baseball. And they are starting to make that investment in the urban communities, but it is not on the same level. We are making the investment internationally, but they need to invest more in America and they need to invest more into the African-American community. And if they do, they will find that this is an emerging market for both players and fans.”

In hopes of doing just that, The Washington Nationals are looking to build a D.C. Baseball Academy in Washington, D.C. It’s been held up over political wrangling over a land transfer. (SBF)

“That’s good. We hope to do something similar here in Kansas City. I know there are efforts in Atlanta and New York and with the successful baseball academy out in California already (Carson, suburb of L.A.). So I just encourage them to continue fighting for that because this place, this museum, is evidence that people have interest, had interest, and we know there is athletic talent out there to harness.”

Is The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum involved with the Negro League Throwback Days that occur each year now in many Major League Parks? (SBF)

“Yes, we are involved in most of the national celebrations, especially here in Kansas City. We pick the uniforms for the teams to wear. The Kansas City Royals have been very supportive of us. We (The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum) own The Kansas City Monarchs name. We give The Royals permission to use the uniform. And we advise them historically on what they should pick. Then, they donate the uniforms back to us, which we sell at the end of the year to raise money for our educational programs. We receive great support from The Pittsburgh Pirates who have taken their uniforms and sold them to split among their charities while making major contributions to us. And we have advised many Major and Minor League Teams on what to do and how to do their (throwback) games.”

It costs $15,000 to $20,000 to fully outfit any two teams for a Negro Leagues Throwback Day. Dollars which many Major Leagues Teams attempt to push toward sponsorships in their communities to defray the costs.

“I am always concerned when I hear a team is doing an event and they haven’t called us because I always fear the uniforms are not going to come out right. You can’t always be 100% historically accurate but there is so much that can be done—problematically--as well as to the look on the field, so not to just throw something out there. But we know The Braves have done some things in the past. Also, The Reds, The Brewers, The Nationals, The Tigers—who run a really big program. And The Padres of all teams too—although they don’t wear the uniforms but do so (monetarily) in support of (Hall of Famer) Dave Winfield—who is a big supporter of the museum. He makes sure there is always a tribute to The Negro Leagues and The Padres have been a top supporter of the museum in that regard.”

Where do you see this museum going in the next 20 years? (SBF)

“There are a couple of things we need to do. This exhibit (Field Of Legends) has been really popular. It has really drawn in a lot of great fans. We always feel like we need more space. But what we really need the space for is for research. So we can welcome reporters and researchers and not just baseball researchers, but people who are interested in films, novels and especially students who want to get deeper into the history. We have archives, but we also need archives. We know there is an interest in that. And it is that function of the museum that constantly examines the history, always looking for where we can get more truth, not just the folklore, keep the story alive and make it accessible to the public. We need a space to do that. We are hoping to build a research center and right now that tentative plan is to refurbish the old YMCA Building where The Negro Leagues were founded to do that. Whether we are able to do that with the building or not, there is going to be some type of research facility which is the next major thing we need to do. But we also want to continue adding as many artifacts as we can. We have photographs and things we want to add. As you can see almost every corner is taken up in this space, but there are things we want to add and add strategically. We are always examining a new way to present the history. We have a very traditional way of presenting the history now. You read a lot and you look at a lot. What we don't want to do is embrace technology just to have it, but whatever it takes to meet the needs and to educate more and different audiences we always want to examine that. So, if that means ripping this out (Field of Legends) and doing it completely over again—we have to be open minded to that as well. We also know there is a nostalgia element that this exhibit works very well for. I don’t see any major changes in the next two or three years, but we are always going to constantly examine how we can present the history better.”

When my wife, Sohna and I went to The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2008, one of the curators—John Odell (Who Dr. Doswell knows)--told us that not many current players show up to visit there--other than Ichiro. Is that the same here? (SBF)

“We are in a better position than The National Baseball Hall of Fame in that you have got to make an effort to go up and visit The Hall of Fame. So, unless you happen to be in town, it’s difficult for ballplayers to get up to Cooperstown, unless you come in the off-season. Here, we are fortunate because we are a Major League Town (The Kansas City Royals). So, yeah, guys pop in here all the time. Sometimes unannounced, sometimes it’s a pretty formal thing. Sometimes, they are invited specifically for something. As an example, just last week, we had Don Wakamatsu (Manager of The Seattle Mariners) for special programs. Since he is the first Asian-American Manager, we felt that was important for us to highlight and he was gracious enough to accept the invitation and come. The Tampa Bay Rays Manager (Joe Maddon) and others have come through. We have a program called “The Legacy Awards” which honors Major League Baseball players with season ending awards named after Negro Leaguers. We had Cliff Lee (2008 AL Cy Young Award Winner) here last year. He was an award winner. Joe Maddon was a recipient last year. He could not make it to the ceremony, but when his team came to town this year he came over. He got his award and he presented us with a donation."

"You would be surprised at those who come in to visit. Ichiro actually has come here too. One day he popped in unannounced. I wasn’t here. I was at an event. He didn’t really look around the museum that much, but he wanted to do some shopping, bought a Josh Gibson Jersey. I am not sure how many people actually recognized him. But then he came back a year after Mr. O’Neil passed away and he made a contribution in Buck O’Neil’s honor. A major cash contribution to the museum. Ryan Howard (of The Phillies) was apparently popping in here for years. How anyone that large can be missed is beyond me (laughing). He has some connections here in Kansas City, but he is from St. Louis. And he says he tries to stop by before the start of every season when he is here visiting relatives and people in Kansas City. And one year, he just happened to show up when I was here and I had the chance to talk with him. So, whenever we ask him for things—and his family is so great—he helps outs. You honestly never know who is going to pop in here. And not just baseball players, we get the football stars, actors, actresses and politicians."

"Kansas City is in the middle of the country. The city is set in the middle of the country. People come here for conventions all the time. And in comparison to Cooperstown, they just show up here and enjoy the museum and we are thankful for that. And for all our different events, we reach out to the many (Major League) baseball teams for donations—autographed items and things we can auction off for the museum. We are fortunate in that way as compared to Cooperstown. I don’t think Cooperstown has had a President visit in quite a few years. But we’ve had President Clinton, Governor Bush at the time of his visit, Vice-President Gore--when we were in our old space. We had The First Lady—Michelle Obama recently. But it’s not just our location, there is a real serious interest in the topic which has made it very easy for us to attract a number of people. Of course, we would like more, but it's hard to get a Major League Baseball player out of bed when they are on the road. Although, people like Dusty Baker (Cincinnati Manager)—especially now since The Reds will come in here for Inter-League play--will come over more often. Even in the past, he would make a point to come over and visit us. The last time he was in---he brought his coaches and players with him (from The Cincinnati Reds). He told everyone to come on over and experience this place with him. And they did."

"It was nice moment shared."

With those final words, My Conversation With Raymond Doswell, Vice-President Of Curatorial Services at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri concluded. But, we are not done with our stories just yet. Tomorrow, a visual look through The NLBM followed by My Final Conversation With Bob Kendrick, Vice-President Of Marketing at the museum. Bob and I found out we share a common passion for the game and Mr. Kendrick was as wonderful at answering my many questions the second time around as he was in our first chat. Those stories coming over the next few days here on Nats320. Hope you are enjoying this special tour.

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.


SenatorNat said...

Dr. Doswell is a terrific historian and spokesperson - very informative and interesting perspectives. Most unintentionally funny remark he makes is that Black GI's in World War I "had to fight with the French." I know that this is serious stuff, but I think most of us can agree that that is a funny line. Thanks again.

(The E.Chicago uniforms are the coolest!) His views on getting younger AA's to see baseball as part of the community and heritage are very heartening if it can revitalize interest in America's Pastime.

Incidentally, Nats without Nyjer sinking like a stone - Riggles sounds very frustrated in the zero offense. I think that he recognizes that the schedule does not bode well for 14 wins out of remaining 28. More likely the team wins 8-12, which will put him on the bubble for hiring. Anything less than 55 wins and I think he is not likely to be retained. Anything above 55 makes him the presumptive hire. (55 wins is the absolute toss-up break point.) 60 or above and he gets two year contract. So - every game of the remaining 28 crucial for him. Yet, none of the new guys are contributing while the mainstays are now tired. Pitching is going to be a game to game matter as total innings for younsters come into play (sorness and cut-offs). I am not betting on his return, i.e., winning at least 56 games, due to the unstable starting rotation.

Silver lining is Bryce Harper sweepstakes - Nats "lead" KC Royals by 6 games in the loss column with 28 to play. Magic number may come into play in two weeks.

Trust in Number One-Number One. Strasburg-Harper. And so much fun.

An Briosca Mor said...

SenatorNat, even if Riggleman runs the table the rest of this season I think the best he can hope for is a one year contract with one or maybe two team option years tacked on. What will probably happen with him worst case is that they will not fire him (because he's the interim, they don't have to) but instead string him along while they look for the right guy. If they can't find the right guy, they'll give the job to Riggleman. If they do hire someone else, they'll probably stick Riggleman in as bench coach again, setting him up to become the Nats' version of Gene Michael or Bob Lemon. (Manny Acta, should he find success somewhere else, could eventually become the Nats' version of Billy Martin. Big IF there, of course.) I think there is no chance at all of them hiring a manager with enough stature to bring his own coaching staff in with him. Thus even if there's a new guy as skipper, much if not all of this current crop of coaches will be back.