By Tom Varner |
While the Kansas City Royals are beloved in their hometown and have won two World Series championships, the city has an even more successful baseball team that is part of its legacy: the Kansas City Monarchs. The Monarchs formed in 1920 and were charter members of the Negro National League. During their 40-plus-year history, the Monarchs only had one season in which they did not have a winning record, they won 10 league championships, and won the first Negro League World Series in 1924. The first Major League Baseball night game was played in 1935, but the Monarchs played their first night game five years earlier in 1930. Jackie Robinson played for the Monarchs and the team produced more players to Major League Baseball than any other Negro League franchise.
Visitors to Kansas City can learn more about the Monarchs and other Negro League baseball teams and history when they visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Spearheaded by Buck O’Neil, former player and manager for the Monarchs and the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was started in 1990. “It was a tiny, one-room office,” said Bob Kendrick, current President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
From those humble beginnings, the museum grew and expanded and is now located at 1616 E. 18th St. in the 8th and Vine District. The current location is just two blocks away from the Paseo YMCA where Andrew “Rube” Foster established the Negro National League in 1920. The Negro National League has particular importance in the history of baseball. While there had been various black baseball teams before then, it wasn’t until the establishment of Foster’s Negro National League in 1920 that black baseball had a successful and organized professional league. The Negro National League only existed for 11 years, but its impact upon baseball was tremendous. According to Kendrick, “What Rube Foster accomplished in establishing the Negro Leagues against the backdrop of American segregation is monumental and richly deserves to be more than just a footnote in baseball history.”
Visitors to the museum begin the tour by passing through turnstiles and looking through a chicken wire fence at the museum’s centerpiece, the Field of Legends. The Field of Legends is a small indoor baseball field featuring 10 larger than life-size bronze statues of some of the greatest players in Negro League history.
According to Kendrick, they are “10 of the baddest brothers to ever play the game.” Josh Gibson, probably the most prolific hitter of all time, is crouched behind home plate. The fastest man in baseball, Cool Papa Bell, stands in the outfield, while Satchel Paige, one of the best and most colorful pitchers ever to play the game, stands on the pitcher mound. Other players on the field include Buck Leonard, Pop Lloyd, Judy Johnson, Ray Dandridge, Oscar Charleston, Leon Day, and Martin Dihigo. While visitors are able to look at some of these figures when they enter the museum, the figures are obscured and can only be seen in their totality at the conclusion of the tour. As visitors circle the Field of Legends, and examine the artifacts and displays, the barriers slowly are stripped away. The layout simulates a sense of segregation in hopes that in some small way visitors can relate to what Negro Leagues players experienced during their careers.
In addition to the National Negro League the museum displays the history of all the Negro Leagues, from the 1870s when baseball first became segregated through 1962 when the Negro American League officially folded. The museum chronologically charts the history of the Negro Leagues with various interactive exhibits and informational placards. There is a section of the museum that features lockers set up for many different legends of the leagues. Game-worn uniforms, cleats, gloves, batting helmets, and other artifacts of some of these greats are displayed. In another unique exhibit, nearly 200 autographed baseballs signed by different Negro Leagues players, including ones signed by Cool Papa Bell and Hank Aaron, are displayed. This collection was donated to the museum by Geddy Lee from the band Rush; when donated in 2008, it was the largest single donation ever made to the museum.
2020 marks the centennial of Rube Foster’s National Negro Leagues and since February 13of this year, the museum has been celebrating the event. There were a variety of events scheduled to occur throughout the year to mark the centennial. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, some of those events were cancelled and others were modified. Nevertheless, the celebration continues for the rest of the year.
Admission to the Negro Leagues Museum is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $6 for children. Group discounts are available. Normal operating hours are Tues. – Thurs. 11:00 a.m. – 4:00p.m., Fri. – Sat. 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., and Sun. 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Social distancing is practiced and masks are currently required when visiting the museum. For more information about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum please visit nlbm.com or call (816) 221-1920.
Tom Varner is a former English teacher. His writing has tended to focus on American history and travel. He has a particular interest in the unusual, obscure, overlooked, and forgotten places of interest and moments in history.