Race Against Time

On November 7, 1990, the Negro League Basebal lMuseum, located in Kansas City, Missouri, was created by a group of former Negro League players in a one-room office space that contained a round table and six chairs.  In two of those chairs sat Buck O’Neil and Slick Surratt.  The story goes; that they took turns paying the monthly rent to keep their dream alive.  This office space was part of the Lincoln Building, which is located at the Historic 18th and Vine Street, in the Jazz District.

To be clear, this building is not a Hall of Fame.  It is important to the Museum that they are not referred to as such.  The Negro League Baseball Museum (NLBM) was conceived as a museum to tell the complete story of Negro League baseball.  They do not hold any special induction ceremonies for honorees.  They believe that the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown,New York, is the proper place for recognition of baseball’s greatest players.  However, they do give special recognition with their exhibits, to those Negro League players who have been honored in Cooperstown.  In 1994, this group was able to expand into a 2,000 square-foot space.  They hung photographs and built interactive displays, and a number of film exhibits were added, all commemorating the history of Negro League baseball.  With the help of the city, a new 50,000 square-foot building opened in September of 1997, and theBaseballMuseummoved into their new space of 10,000 square feet.  They opened their doors in November of that same year.  Twelve bronze sculptures and many artifacts are now on display.

During the 1870s-1880s, over 50 African-Americans had played in leagues with white players.  In 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker, a catcher, became the first Negro to reach the Major Leagues, with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association.  White pitchers refused to accept signs from a Negro catcher.   By 1887, all the ownership of white teams entered into an agreement that refused to sign anymore African-American players.  It would be 60 years before another black player joined the Major Leagues.  His name was Jackie Robinson.

In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster, a former player, manager and owner of the Chicago American Giants put in place the organized baseball group that would become known as the Negro Leagues.  Twenty-two different teams made up the Negro Leagues from 1920 until 1962.  Some of the more famous include:  the Birmingham Black Barons, Chicago American Giants, Indianapolis Clowns, Baltimore Elite Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, New York Black Yankees, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Memphis Red Sox.

In 1945, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs.  He became the first African-American in the modern era to play on a Major League team.  Jackie would make his Major League debut in 1947.  Unfortunately this event, while historic in civil rights history, eventually spelled the end of the Negro Leagues, as many fine Negro League players joined the Major League ranks and their fans followed suit.   Some of those names are well known such as Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, “Satchel” Paige, Ray Dandridge, “Junior” Gilliam, Luke Easter, Hank Thompson, “Minnie” Minoso, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Don Newcombe.

From 1920 through 1962, the end of the Negro League era, more than 2,500 men and, yes, women contributed to the Negro League games as players, coaches, managers and executives.  It is estimated that approximately 120 former Negro League players are still living.  Most of them played at the tail end of the era.  For them, this museum has definitely been a race against time.

As of this writing, there have been 35 former Negro League players inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  Not all of them played in the Major Leagues, but they were honored for their contributions to the Negro Leagues.  Many of them were WWII veterans.

As for me, I have been blessed to meet Buck O’Neil on two different occasions and also Slick Surratt.  They were together inHoustonduring the 2005 World Series and were the speakers for the Negro League traveling museum.  I wrote about both of them in my Greatness Series books.

So, on Saturday, November 7, 2015, it was fitting that the NegroLeagueMuseumcelebrated its 25th anniversary.  Attending the celebration were stars like Hank Aaron, Dave Winfield, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, “Fergie” Jenkins and many more.  Current curator, Bob Kendrick, was pleased.   Next time you’re inKansas City, check it out.


Andy Purvis