From the mid 1800’s to modern day, black baseball has had a rich history in America. The story, the history, and the accounts of black baseball in America in 1990 were neither documented in baseball record books or prevalent in African-American history educational programming. Though the stories were very much alive in the black baseball communities, in the families of the players, fans, and associates the black baseball stories were considered little more than folk tales.
The highlight of black baseball in America was the forming and surgence of the Negro Baseball Leagues. This powerful part of American history impacted many “modern day” African American successes. From Jesse Jackson’s father playing barnstorming exhibition games to Tiger Woods' father being the first black baseball player in the Big Seven Conference, it is the untold piece of our country’s Identity.
One of the more significant and vibrant hot beds for this history is Kansas City, MO. Not only is it the home of the famous Kansas City Monarchs, but it’s where the National Negro Baseball Leagues were formed (at the Paseo YMCA.) As in Pittsburgh, Pa., Birmingham Al., Newark N.J., and other cities that hosted Negro Baseball Leagues franchises, Kansas City’s community was greatly impacted by the existence of the Negro Baseball Leagues.
The Negro Baseball Leagues had a strong business and financial infrastructure that not only paralleled the Major Leagues in a lot of areas, but exceeded the standards set by Major League Baseball. The Negro Baseball League executives were strong leaders and innovators. For example, Monarch’s owner D.L. Wilkerson built the first lighting systems for night games and the leagues demonstrated diversity by accepting Hispanic and female players on their teams.
The players and the league itself had a lot of adversities to overcome. America was dealing with racism and unfair prejudice in social and business practices while struggling as a young country trying to find its identity.
Like the Major League Baseball All-Star games, the Negro Baseball Leagues All-Star games drew large crowds. The two leagues paired in exhibition All-Star games for a short while. The results were not pleasing to Major League Baseball. There is a story of Satchel Paige in an All-Star exhibition game, where he had the defense sit down on the field while he struck out the side. The dream of being in the Majors was a dream of playing baseball at its highest level and the Negro Baseball League players were doing just that.
The Negro Baseball Leagues gave players with the best ability the opportunity to play the game. Set in a time and place where the urban culture was Negro Baseball League; players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Buck O’Neil and Hank Aaron; gangsters and politicians like Tom and Dave Pendergast, Charles Binaggio, and Harry Truman; and jazz musicians like Jay Mcshann, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington and Big Joe Turner, lighting up the streets, clubs, newspapers and baseball parks.
A group of people from Kansas City led by Horace Peterson, creator and Executive Director of the Black Archives, took the approach of bringing certain awareness to the Negro Baseball Leagues. Their players, their great achievements, the enormous numbers of misinterpreted facts, and the lost stories were credited by forming the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
With 1,000 pounds of heart, a vision, and no real financial backing, Buck O’Neil and Don Motley along with small group of committed constituents (The Negro Leagues baseball Museum, a non-for profit organization) embarked on this ambitious task of building The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to preserve, protect, and promote the Negro Baseball Leagues rich history. Their tangible assets were their personal experiences, their relationships within the history and their personal dedication in creating the museum.
It is very much a story from Rags to Riches. The first domicile was a one room office (about 12’ x 24’.) The staff was completely volunteers. There was a great number of people with serious doubts they would be able to complete their dream of creating the museum.
The Museum begin building assets by constructing exhibits with the facts and artifacts they owned and acquired. The small group paid most of the expenses out of their own pockets. They grew the museum’s assets very fundamentally within their capabilities.
The museum met a small owner/operated Display Company out of Abilene, Ks called ESA to design a gallery for the newly renovated 18th and vine District. ESA had some experience in developing assets for various museums throughout the country. The company was owned by Ed Scheele with his partner and wife Lynda Scheele. The couple’s vision for the museum gallery had an entrance and an exit to parallel the history. As you enter the museum, you are at the beginning of Black baseball. As you pass through the museum, you visit the chronology of events not only within black Baseball but coupled to significant events outside of Negro Baseball that give clue to the life and the times. The staff at the museum felt the Scheele’s had the right vision and that they were their designers
Kansas City felt it important to promote its baseball heritage by appropriating 2 million dollars for the build-out of the museum. It came with a couple stipulations that the museum had difficulty with. One; the city would select their designer/builder and two; the city would own the gallery. Mr. Motley and his group felt the agenda for the city was not conducive to the mission of the museum and decided that they wanted the Scheeles and ESA to build their gallery as well as have control over the future of the museum. The group was thenfaced with the challenge of funding and constructing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Gallery without the city's funding.
The Negro Baseball Leagues was formed because there was no other choice, if blacks wanted to play baseball they had to organize their own leagues. If the museum wanted the stories to be a part of our history, they would have to form their own method to institute and implement the facts. When Major League baseball allowed the Negro League Baseball stars to play in the Majors, it was the eventual demise of the Negro Baseball leagues. The museum did not want another governing body or another agenda to be the demise of their plight to preserve, protect, and promote the Negro baseball history. History would not repeat itself this time.
The City was not exactly thrilled about the decision for the museum to be independent and did not go out of their way to make the construction an easy effort. Phase by Phase the team met the financial and timeline demands in the construction schedule and after one year it was Opening Day, The Moment of Truth.
Naturally the city and the community were anxious to see the results of what was a largely publicized, controversial, and busy-buzzing story of the building of a new museum in Kansas City. There was a huge turnout for the anticipated ribbon cutting ceremony.
The city celebrated the achievements of the museum staff (Don Motley, Ray Doswell, Bob Kendrick, Tom Bush, dedicated associates and board members) and embraced Buck O’Neil as the ambassador of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Since the opening of the new gallery the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has become a national designation by US Congress. Today the momentum has propelled the stories to reach millions of people world-wide and has instituted programming to involve the biggest stars and public figures. The museum’s outreach has impacted today’s youth to observe their past so as to build for the future, to envision the possibilities through what had been made possible, and to believe their behavior truly makes a difference.
With much yet to do, the leaders and staff of The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City Missouri have achieved their dream of preserving, protecting, and promoting the legacy of a culture in time and a time in our culture. The End? No, just the beginning.