Archive for Thursday, August 14, 2008

Museum has become summer sports history destination

August 14, 2008

Perhaps one of the most bizarre, and even culturally significant baseball games ever played in the history of the game occurred in late June 1925.

The Wichita Monrovians, a black exhibition team from Kansas, scheduled a game against Lodge No. 6 of the Ku Klux Klan. The game was announced in a June 21, seemingly apprehensive article in the Wichita Beacon newspaper.

The outcome was a Monrovian victory, 10-8, over the Klan lodge. Maybe even more significantly, there were no violent acts carried out during the game against either team.

Such an occurrence is just one peculiarity commemorated in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located at the 18th Street and Vine complex in Kansas City, Mo., a little more than 37 miles from the office of The De Soto Explorer.

As the summer months wind on, sports enthusiasts may thirst for Fridays under the lights during high school football season or the sounds and smells of a packed gymnasium on a Thursday evening during volleyball season.

In the meantime, a $6 ticket for adults and a $2.50 ticket for kids under 12 can quench that thirst by embracing such historically significant places as the NLBM.

"It's important to note that the Negro Leagues should not have existed. If things were appropriate in the nation and in history, there wouldn't have been a need of a Negro Leagues," deputy director and chief curator Raymond Doswell said. "But there was, and that story needed to be told, and it needed to be told in a more in-depth way than what was being done at the (National Baseball) Hall of Fame and in other places that celebrate baseball.

"So that's why the museum exists, and we're happy for it."

The rise and fall

The NLBM begins the story of the Negro Leagues back before the Jim Crow law era in the late-1800s. African Americans participated on military, college and even professional teams before segregation swept America and players were no longer allowed to participate.

Moses Fleetwood Walker was one such player who played professionally before that occurred. But by 1900 segregation forced African-Americans from the professional ranks. However, that didn't stop black players from organizing teams, touring the country and taking on any team that would pose a challenge.

Andrew "Rube" Foster, a former player who would become one of the most respected executives throughout the Negro Leagues, formed a league in 1920, incorporating a number of teams. During a meeting at the Paseo YMCA - still standing and located just blocks from the modern-day museum - Foster met with other owners and formed the Negro National League, composed of predominately Midwestern teams.

Soon rival leagues were formed throughout the U.S., and even in Canada and Latin America. In all, at least eight official leagues were formed.

Games became cultural gatherings, featuring some of the best players and characters ever known in the baseball community: Josh Gibson, Henry Aaron, Satchel Paige, "Cool Papa" Bell - who may be best-known for his boast that he was so fast he could hit the light switch and be in bed before darkness overtook the room - and, most well known to Kansas City, the late John "Buck" O'Neil.

Jackie Robinson's April 15, 1947, signing with Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers led to the eventual demise of the Negro Leagues as the best black players were recruited by Major League owners and black fans soon followed.

The following quote by New York City fan Paul Binder on display in the section of the museum devoted to this time period talks about the growing acceptance of fans of different races.

"Was I uncomfortable when black fans descended on Ebbets when Jackie Robinson came up? Let me put it this way: I felt uncomfortable in the first game and a little awkward in the second game. By the third game we were all cheering wildly together and spilling soda on each other. By May, there weren't any black fans and white fans, just Dodger fans."

Relationship with Hall

Doswell said the NLBM doesn't try to be the National Baseball Hall of Fame, nor want to be thought of in the same way. The two organizations assist one another in research matters, but are mutually exclusive.

He calls the relationships he's formed working with Hall employees informal, as he's gotten to know the staff through phone conversations and in-person visits. Doswell recently went to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the July 18 unveiling of the Buck O'Neil statue, which now stands near the ticket office of the Hall of Fame. The unveiling coincided with the Hall's recognition of O'Neil as the recipient of the first Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.

"They are very supportive of what we're doing," Doswell said. "I wouldn't say it's a competitive situation. We've never tried to compete with the Hall of Fame. I don't ever recall a situation where the relationship has been adversarial."

Doswell did say that, at times, the organizations desire the same artifacts, but that's often diffused because the Hall doesn't buy artifacts, it only accepts donations. So when the NLBM bids on an artifact, it's never bidding against the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

State of museum

One of the most impressive artifacts on display at the NLBM could soon grow. It now has a picture, of Henry "Hank" Aaron at the ripe age of 16 - according to the Museum, although Doswell said when Aaron visited he said he would have been slightly older - in front of a train station in 1952 before boarding to go play shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns.

There is one letter of correspondence between Clowns' owner Syd Pollock and Aaron and his parents featured with the photo, and a second letter exists and could be added shortly. The NLBM purchased a collection of Clowns' artifacts this year.

And so it goes with the museum. Doswell and researches continuously search for, and try to obtain, historical artifacts that are pertinent to the history of the Negro Leagues.

Showing people that history - the museum has averaged between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors a year over the last five years - is the best part of the job for Doswell.

"For me (my favorite part is) when others come in and discover that history, young and old," he said. "People that have been baseball fans for a long time, and come in and see the history they had never thought of as baseball fans."

From Yankees fans to Twins fans, the influx of fans coming to town following their team is where much of the business comes from, and the NLBM's guestlist has grown to international status.

Hours of operation are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from noon to 6 p.m. Sundays.


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