By Michael Kinney
KANSAS CITY – I’ve spent a lot of time in Missouri. From four years of college to three years of my professional career, I’ve traveled many a mile of the Show Me State.
Just two years ago I visited a friend in St. Louis and spent a couple of days just exploring the city and museums downtown. Writing about museums and historical sites in every city I visit is one of my favorite pastimes.
But while in St. Louis, I realized that during my years in Missouri, there was one museum I had never visited and I was disappointed in myself for it. Despite spending serious time in downtown Kansas City, I had never been to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the mecca of black baseball.
That finally changed when I found myself back in Kansas City for Thanksgiving week. The first thing I did was head to the 18th and Vine District, which not only houses the Negro League Museum but also the Jazz Museum.
First of all, the district itself is on the rise. Once known for a high crime rate, it is has been revitalized. With the new business, condos and upscale apartments being built around the district, it has potential to be special once again.
“The 18th & Vine historic district was the center for black culture and life in Kansas City from the late 1800s-1960s,” the NLBM sates on its website. “It was the hub of activity for homeowners, business, jazz music, and baseball enthusiast. Just outside of the district stands the Paseo YMCA building, which was built as a black YMCA in 1914. It served as temporary home for baseball players, railroad workers, and others making the transition to big city life in the Midwest. It was here that the Negro National League was founded in 1920. Although the district and the YMCA building were becoming blighted by the 1980s, they were recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.”
I took a self-guided tour Negro League Baseball Museum. After a 15 minute film that was narrated by James Earl Jones, you are hit immediately with what life was like for African Americans in the 1800s. In fact, the entire tour is like walking through time on two separate paths. One that highlighted what was going on in the world and the other pointed out what was going on in black baseball at the same time and how they intersected.
There is so much information to consume, you have to give yourself time to go through it all. Small artifacts, posters, photos and amazing art work and statues are littered throughout the building.
Rube Foster, who founded the negro leagues in 1920, is lost to history in other baseball themed sites. But at the NLBM, he has a statue and tons of information on his life.
Other notable figures to get prominent attention included Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and ofcourse Jackie Robinson. But there were many players not well known who baseball fans have an opportunity to learn about about.
One of the best exhibits is a small film near the end of the tour of Buck O’Neal, who has gone down as the ambassador to not only negro league baseball but the overall game itself.
On a side note, I once met Mr. O’Neal at a Kansas City Royals game. One of my greatest regrets was not taking the time to interview him.
At the very end of the tour, the museum created a baseball field. There are statues of who they considered to be the best player in the history of the Negro leagues at each position. It’s an impressive moment to be standing on home plate next to the Gibson statues staring at Paige.
My one complaint is that the building wasn’t big enough. Even though the league last less than 40 years, there is so much historical information being packed into a small room.
But that is insignificant to how detailed and informative the entire museum was. It was well worth the wait.