Friday, September 04, 2009

My Final Conversation With Bob Kendrick

"And I once asked Buck (O’Neil) about that," Bob Kendrick said: ‘Buck did you guys play The National Anthem at your (Negro League) games?’ And he looked at me like (I was crazy): ‘Of course we did! Why are you asking me that silly question?’ And I said: ‘Why?’ And again, he’s appeasing me but he said it so succinctly--but in such an impacting way--‘Because We Were Americans.’"

Strong words and telling of African-Americans during the years of segregated baseball in America. They not only wished to have the same opportunities enjoyed by most anyone else in The United States of America, but they also wanted equality in the land they were born in, loved and were citizens. Two separate professional leagues, operating at the same time. Each with it own fan bases. The Major Leagues & The Negro Leagues with their very own business models.

Both thrived, but White Baseball & Black Baseball were never equal.

After over five hours spent at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on August 11th in Kansas City, Missouri--Bob Kendrick, The Vice-President of Marketing for the NLBM got together with me one final time just to chat. He was interested in what I had learned. And, of course, I had many more questions to ask. For 30 minutes, we sat in the Coffee/Gift Shop of The American Jazz Museum in the foyer of the building each museum shares in the historic 18th & Vine District. Talking, pondering thoughts, we explored some of the many stories The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum tells its visitors each and every day. And the need for the NLBM to archive so much more. We touched on some fresh topics and we expounded of others which Dr. Raymond Doswell & I had referenced earlier in the day.

With that here is the finale of Negro Leagues Week here on Nats320: My Final Conversation With Bob Kendrick.

I wanted to pick up sort of where we left off, the sort of sub-culture that took off due to The Negro Leagues. (SBF)

“The story of The Negro Leagues from that respect is bittersweet because as we look at the integration of baseball and what that ultimately led to--was widespread integration in our society, which was good morally, good socially, but was devastating economically for black business. Black businesses, which had become dependent on black baseball, many of those smaller black businesses perished as a result of progress. And as I share with my visitors every day, there is always a cost for progress and in this case these black businesses paid a dear cost. Keep in mind, it was not uncommon that these Negro League teams could play in a town, fill up the ballpark, and yet not be able to get a meal in that same town from the same fans that had just cheered them. Or, not have a place to stay. And so yes, they would have to sleep on the bus and have their peanut butter and crackers. Well, those black businesses emerged to meet their needs. Negro League Baseball brought them in a built in means of support that led those black businesses to an economic high.”

“Going back to what we were talking about earlier, wherever you had successful black baseball, you generally had thriving black economies. Those two things go hand in hand. Well, with the integration of baseball and ultimately the integration of society, those smaller black businesses could now not compete with those larger established white businesses. And ultimately, it is really interesting because I think we asked for integration but what we wanted was equality. And I think that is what we are finding now; still there is that quest for equality as opposed to integration. So, now you have the opportunity to go into these establishments that you were never previously able to before, but you are still not being treated as equals. And I think that journey is still an on-going journey. But it (the integration of baseball) certainly had its negative effects as well. But overall, it was good for the soul of this country, it helped move us forward as a country and as a people and it started the ball rolling in terms of social progress in our country. But again, there is always a cost for progress.”

If I go into your museum and try to read everything—and I tried to in the hours given to do just that--(Bob starts laughing knowing that’s a big chore)—it is odd that you have blacks fighting for their country. And it really stands out they are helping to stop oppression overseas and African-Americans cannot come back home and play Major League Baseball on the field? (SBF)

“And I think that was the prevailing sentiment. Here you had men who were as American as anyone being treated as Un-American as anyone. Yet, they were willing to not only fight, but were WILLING to go fight for their country when their country wasn’t fighting for them. And so to go fight racism in another country, yet you are being subjected to that same racism in this country was certainly filled with irony. But it was also the prevailing sentiment that started the movement to say: ‘This makes no sense.’ If you fight for your country, you ought to be able to play baseball in this country. And of course, that leads us down the path to subsequently Jackie Robinson becoming that chosen one. But that certainly was the prevailing sentiment. And I once asked Buck (O’Neil) about that. I said: ‘Buck did you guys play The National Anthem at your games?’ And he looked at me like (I was crazy): ‘Of course we did! Why are you asking me that silly question?’ And I said: ‘Why?’ And again, he’s appeasing me but he said it so succinctly but in such an impacting way ‘Because We Were Americans.’ And these men were trying to prove that they were Americans. And that is why they wanted to go to war, they wanted to fight. They didn’t want some subservient roles in the military. They wanted to fight for their country. And I found that (statement) to be so amazing just given the conditions they were living under in this country. The National Anthem is that song of patriotism—you know what I mean!! (Yes—SBF) It is that song that speaks to everything that this country is all about. And those men, and Buck in particular, held on and truly believed that America could be that America--could be what America was saying it was—when it wasn’t. They held on to that belief and I think that is what allowed them to carry on and do the things that they did that are sometimes puzzling for folks—my age—to quite understand—truthfully.”

Which brings me back to the very first video presentation (“We Are All-Stars” narrated by James Earl Jones), where there is a young boy in a Negro League Uniform singing The National Anthem. (SBF)

“Absolutely, it’s very powerful.”

But then while African-Americans are fighting overseas and dying, the culture here is constantly putting them down in The United States. Yet, undaunted, they are pushing forward. (SBF)

“You might have noticed when you were making your way through the museum, we have what I call stereotypical depictions. The cartoons portraying African-Americans and not in the kindest way. But those things are there for a purpose. It was very important that we help our visitors understand the perceptions of blacks in this country if they were to fully appreciate the love and passion these men had for the game of baseball, which would allow them to deal with the adverse situations they encountered traveling the highways and by-ways of our country. But again, here were men and women who were as American as anyone being treated as Un-American as anyone. So much so, that they would have to try to pass themselves off as being from another country to get basic services in this country. Many of those athletes would indeed, try to pass themselves off by being of some Hispanic decent by attempting to speak a broken down Spanish because IT MIGHT allow them to get a meal in a town where otherwise they couldn’t get a meal. And I think that is the thing that fills this whole story with irony—really—all throughout the story itself. But, they (African-Americans) did not allow that to kill their love of the game.”

It is like being accepted but not accepted at the same time. (SBF)

“But the truth of the matter is that if you were anything else but an American-Black, you could get around OK in this country.”

Moving to earlier in the history, you had Moses Fleetwood Walker and Frank Grant they were integrated onto teams early on. But then you have someone like Cap Anson come along that has a famous name, and thus the voice to help squash any further developments by African-Americans. (SBF)

“He was a great player, but I also don’t think it was that difficult for him to find support. And certainly made easier because he was so good. It is always easier for that guy championing the cause—whatever it is—if this guy excels. Well, Anson was an outstanding baseball player. So, it was easy for him to build a coalition of followers who shared those same sentiments in terms of not allowing blacks to play. And basically what he said: ‘if you allow blacks to play with you, you can’t play with us.” He was influential so that is how this whole thing (segregation of the game) would come into being. The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” as they called it—which is amazing that there was not a written documentation whatsoever. Just a verbal alliance and agreement among players, managers and owners to stop blacks from playing on white professional teams until (Jackie) Robinson comes about 60 years later.”

There is this very good book on The Homestead Grays called "Beyond The Shadow Of The Senators". Clark Griffith (Owner of The Washington Senators) kept on say he was going to have blacks on his team. He was going to integrate. (SBF)

“He wanted to do it!!”

But he never did. (SBF)

“Yeah, he never did because he got scared. He got scared. He knew that he would be ostracized by his peers. Clark Griffith was watching Josh Gibson hit balls at Griffith Stadium where no mere mortal had ever hit them. And there was this prevailing belief he (Griffith) had thought about the notion of signing Gibson and Buck Leonard just because he was watching them do some incredible things on the baseball diamond. But again, the timing wasn’t right. And I think he was afraid that he would be ostracized—and his peers would have ostracized him. Branch Rickey (who signed Jackie Robinson for Brooklyn) wasn’t welcomed with open arms when he got ready to make that move. But the timing was right.”

The timing. Why is that timing right for Jackie Robinson and not anyone previously? (SBF)

“The timing was right for a number of reasons. Rickey could not have done this in St. Louis. There is no way in the world Rickey could have pulled this off in St. Louis. St. Louis was too southern at that time. So, Rickey moves to Brooklyn, he gets a job in Brooklyn (with The Dodgers). (Kennesaw) Landis, who had been Commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis had died. And as you know—Landis vowed as long as he was Commissioner there would never be a black man playing in The Major Leagues. Well, as fate has it, he dies. Now you have Happy Chandler (as Commissioner of Baseball). Again, a white southerner, but he is not nearly as polarized as some of these other guys. So now the timing is much better. The timing is much better and whatever Rickey’s motives were—whether it was based on righteousness, whether it was a need to reach out to another market to support his team, whether he was cementing his base because he had already done a lot of things in this game of baseball—he was as successful as anyone who had been involved with the game of baseball. Yet, here he was laying it all on the line to make a tremendously bold move. But the timing really was right. And I tell people this all the time, I had a chance to speak with Branch Rickey III here at the museum and he told me something relative to that meeting with Rickey and Robinson. They had never laid eyes on each other until that day in Brooklyn. They had never laid eyes on each other. Now Rickey had sent his scouts out to see Robinson so he had an understanding of Robinson’s baseball ability. And he, Robinson, obviously had his pedigree, so there was stuff already on him relative to the things he had accomplished at UCLA. But the two of them had never laid eyes on each other until that day in Rickey’s office. And in a span of three hours, two very strong willed individuals came to one accord and made one of the most monumental decisions in the history of this country. It changed this country, in a span of three hours. And like I tell our visitors all the time, I don’t know if you believe in divine intervention or not, but there was something very divine that brought those two forces together. And not only brought those two together but put them on the same page because Rickey had to trust that Robinson wouldn’t fight back."

"Well, Robinson was a natural born fighter. As Buck (O’Neil) would say: ‘Robinson could do and would do!!’ (Laughing) He would knock you on your rump. So, he is a natural born fighter. Rickey had to trust that Robinson wouldn’t fight back. Well, Robinson had to trust a white man he had just met. He couldn’t be left out there hung to dry. And somehow, because as you might recall, Robinson comes to the office under the pretence that he is going to be signed to play for Rickey’s new Negro League Team. He had no idea what he was walking into. So it is amazing that in a span of three hours, those two strong willed individuals came together and made one of the most monumental decisions in American History.”

There is quote from a Brooklyn Fan in the museum that says the first time (paraphrasing) Jackie Robinson walked onto Ebbets Field, this fan was scared. The second time, he was calmer. The third time Jackie and the fans were all together on the same page. Which tells me that winning means everything! (SBF)

“Winning does mean everything. And that’s the thing, after Brooklyn started winning, all of a sudden it did not matter what color Jackie was!! Buck always told me that the folks that came to boo Jackie—they were not baseball fans. In fact, many of them had probably not been to a baseball game before. They came specifically to boo Jackie. They were haters. Baseball fans, after a while, after you got over the shock of just seeing that mixture of cultures on the field—it all became about what was happening ON THE FIELD. Brooklyn started winning and people started warming up to Jackie as well as they did with the other black players that came up. Certainly, the hard-core racist didn’t want to see this happen because again: The truth of the matter is that when Jackie and these other African-American and Hispanic Baseball Players came up, they took somebody’s job. Fear had as much to do with why it took so long to integrate this game as much as the racial conditions of our society because you only had 16 teams then. These were good jobs and as I have always surmised—the superstar Major Leaguer really wasn’t concerned about integration. That is why Ted Williams could be an advocate for Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige being inducted into The Hall Of Fame. Ted Williams could play. He wasn’t worried about someone else taking his job. But, that average Major Leaguer was concerned because if you allowed too large an influx of talent in, he might lose his job. This was a great job, so you can certainly understand that sentiment and that fear.”

Why is it then that—looking at Bill Veeck--who was a very forward looking owner (Oh yes, he definitely was—Bob)—yet The American League fell way behind in bringing on black talent. Yet, you look at The National League in the 50’s & 60’s and it was the dominant league. (SBF)

“No question because they were far more aggressive at pursuing those African-American Players. It’s not debatable the accomplishments that were seen when those players from The Negro Leagues came over. And The National League instantly took to it and it took off. They absolutely took off. The American League was very slow. Certainly, in the case of The Yankees and other great teams over in The American League, they didn’t necessarily need black players, but still The American League, overall, was very slow. That’s why (Larry) Doby over in Cleveland was just as difficult a situation as Robinson was in Brooklyn because he is playing in Cleveland. Cleveland is not nearly as liberal. The American League is not nearly as liberal. The national media is not following him like Robinson, and Doby was a baby for all intents and purposes—22 or 23 Years Old—thrown into a powder keg of racism. So we certainly should never forget Doby. Obviously, Robinson was the chosen one and rightfully so. He was the right man to be the first. But those guys who followed behind went through much of the same kinds of things. No question, that American League circuit was tough.”

We’ve been talking about the irony of so much here today. Well, is this Negro League Baseball Museum not ironic in that The Negro Leagues success led to it very own demise? (SBF)

(Laughing and agreeing with the premise) “There is a great quote in one of the films by former CNN Anchorman Bernie Shaw (on display at the NLBM). The success of The Negro Leagues put the leagues out of business. And that was bittersweet as well because what is missing and a lot of time lost in that whole thing is that so many players lost their jobs. And they would have to leave this country if they were to resume a playing career because most of them were too old to go to The Major Leagues. So, they had no value to The Major Leagues and truth to the matters—sadly enough—they had no value to The Negro Leagues because they couldn’t sell them to The Major Leagues. Most of the Negro League owners saw the writing on the wall. They knew that the business of black baseball was about to die. So they started selling their players to The Major Leagues and cashing in as much as they could before this thing just dissolved.”

“Meanwhile, you had a whole litany of guys who were too old and couldn’t be sold. Then, your league was dissolved and there was nowhere left for you to play. Ray Dandridge could play. Ray Dandridge would make it up to The Minneapolis Millers (NY Giants Farm Club—same as Willie Mays) and was named MVP. But Ray Dandridge was probably in his 40’s. There was really no shot for him to go to The Major Leagues, even though he was tearing up AAA. And I think there were many types of those stories. Think about it, you got Satchel (in The Majors) as an old man. Whether he was 42 or 52 we don’t know (laughing). But, he was an old man and yet he was still getting it done. But also, if it were not for (Bill) Veeck, he (Satchel) would probably not been given that chance. Veeck could make that move and people probably looked at him and said that just Veeck being Veeck. But as it turned out, Satchel still had some stuff left in the tank. He was still getting it done. And even Jackie—by today’s standards—was old. He was 28 years old (when promoted to The Dodgers). That is old by Major League standards. So he was fortunate to be able to get 10 years of service in before walking away from the game when they (The Dodgers) wanted to trade him (to arch rival N.Y. Giants). So that was certainly a part of the bittersweet aspect of what happened in the demise of The Negro Leagues.”

I talked to Raymond Doswell about this topic earlier today. Where do you see this museum going from here? (SBF)

“It’s time to grow. It is time to grow. And while we have made leaps and bounds with this project from a one room office space in 1990 to what you saw this day which is 10,000 square feet of space, we have outgrown it because there are still so many stories left to be told. There are SO MANY STORIES left to be told. We don’t have enough space to tell them. That is one of the reasons we have created traveling exhibitions and those kinds of things. But certainly as we look forward, some day we hope to build The Buck O’Neil Research Center at the site of the Paseo YMCA (just a few doors away from NLBM)—which is where it all started (in 1920).

Which is something I learned new today!! (SBF)

“Yeah, for those who were curious as to why Kansas City (for this museum), that is why. The Leagues were formed here in Kansas City in 1920 and we designated that building as the site of the future Buck O’Neil Research Center that would give us—in essence—an additional 40,000 square feet of space. So that is the great thing about this—there is so much growth opportunity and still a lot, a lot of work left to get done. So many stories that have yet to be told and we simply do not have the space. We are definitely looking for growth opportunities within this institution.”

Do you have any idea how many former Negro League players are still alive whose stories can still be told first hand? (SBF)

“We estimate between 130 and 140, not many. And most of those are what we call the “young” Negro Leaguers. They are the guys that played at the tail end—in the late 50’s up to 1960. But guys from Buck’s Era—Monte Irvin’s Era—not many of those guys left who actually played in the 1930’s and 1940’s in The Negro Leagues. Willie Mays played in the late 40’s. Hank Aaron not until ’52. It might be just 20 to 25 of those guys still alive. So the window of opportunity closes every time we lose one of these guys. And that puts a lot of pressure on an institution that is trying to safeguard that story because these are the people who are contributing to our story who can lend voice to what we are trying to do. It does put a lot of pressure on the museum to try to get as much done in as quick a time as we possibly can before these guys are all gone.”

There was this moment at Nationals Park in 2008 when they were celebrating The Negro Leagues and Black Heritage during a Nationals home game. They had invited family and former players from The Negro Leagues. And there was this one lady who said she was a pitcher in The Negro Leagues…. (SBF)

“Mamie Johnson—she lives in Washington, D.C.”

Yes and few believed her. (SBF)

“They were skeptic.”

Yes. (SBF)

“And actually, there were three women to play in The Negro Leagues. Mamie (Indianapolis Clowns) was one of two others. Toni Stone was the first (Clowns ’53) followed by Mamie then Connie Morgan (Clowns ’54). All of those women were tremendous athletes. But it had a strong marketing angle to it. The Negro Leagues had started to lose it’s fan base to The Major Leagues because the black fans wanted to see how that young black star was going to fare now since given the opportunity to play in The Major Leagues. So, they (The Negro Leagues) were looking for a new cliental. They ended up hiring Toni Stone—hoping to attract a female audience. And they did, women came out to see how Toni was going to compete against the men. All three women could handle themselves defensively. Mamie was an outstanding athlete and great pitcher. Buck told me at the plate they (the men) would throw good riding speed fastballs (to the ladies) because the crowd wanted to see the women hit--hit and run. But all three were a great part of the innovativeness of this story. This is the league that would give us the first female owner (Effa Manley)—who knew the business of baseball as well as any man.”

Also the first night games—five years before The Majors. (SBF)

“First night games, absolutely. So, this league took a backseat to none. And that is the type of things we are trying to get people to understand—what you and I were talking about earlier. There were two professional baseball leagues operating simultaneously to each other. And if you can imagine this game without Hank Aaron, without Willie Mays, without Roy Campanella, without Ernie Banks, without Alex Rodriguez, without Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr.—without all of those great players of color who play this game today—then you can imagine what The Major Leagues looked like before them. It wasn’t Major. It wasn’t a Major League until it opened its doors and allowed all the great players to take the field.”

With that final answer, My Final Conversation With Bob Kendrick concluded. Of course, then it was photo time. As most every one knows, you can't do an interview on Nats320 without having your picture taken. But what the pictures helps prove is the commraderie and bond formed over just a few hours among a few people that enjoy baseball and all the history that comes before this day. Bob Kendrick, Dr. Raymond Doswell and myself are all baseball fans--first. We love the game, no matter the color of our skin. And The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum wonderfully highlights a rich and difficult past in The Great Game that should never be forgotten.

The Negro Leagues have a finite history, yet anyone that explores it's importance in society will realize how uniquely intertwined Black Baseball and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is with, as Mr. Kendrick called--The American Spirit.

From the very first moments after we first met in his office earlier this wonderful day, Bob thoughts resonated throughout my enitre visit: "It (The Negro Leagues) 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."

PS--Sohna and I hope you enjoyed this very special series on The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri and our Josh Gibson Field story which kicked off Negro Leagues Week here on Nats320. We encourage any fan of baseball or American History to visit. No question about it, The NLBM will not disappoint. This entire day for me, August 11th, 2009 at the NLBM, just a wonderful experience.

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.

Sean Gibson Photo & Nationals Park Black Heritage Photos--Copyright Nats320--All Reserved

Mamie Johnson Photo--from Google Pictures


Jay said...


I don’t know if you knew this but there used to be a Negro Leagues store in Oxon Hill. The owner/manager used to play in the Negro Leagues (I forget his name).

I went there one day, oh, about six years ago (it’s been closed for several years) and bought a Grays hat. I struck up a conversation with the gentleman and he introduced me to Mamie Johnson who was sitting in the corner. I later found out she was co-owner.

Anyway, thanks so much for your outstanding report on a part of baseball history that is so amazing.

Anonymous said...

In lieu of the fact the we just lost Mr. James Tillman Sr.(Grays) in May of this year, I found this story heartwarming.

Great article!