Jackie Robinson day and a trip to the museum
Apr 15, 2011, 12:32 PM | Updated: 4:49 pm
Cold, wet morning in Kansas City and it looks like we will have more of the same tonight. Tough to tell at this point if we will get a game in. If we do, listen for an audio tour of the Negro Leagues Museum in the pre games show that the broadcasters did yesterday.
We rarely make a trip to Kansas City without stopping by the museum located on 18th and Vine. My first year on the job Kevin Cremin alerted me that they were going and told me that I should too. I am glad I did. The stop at the museum was even more appropriate on this trip as baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day today. His accomplishment was enormous, not only for baseball but for our country. What often gets lost however is it also marked the end of the Negro Leagues.
The story of the end of segregation in baseball far outshadows the stories of the existence of the Negro Leagues. Born out of sad necessity the Leagues nonetheless thrived. It was a proud league with high standards on and off the field. Players traveled in suits and hats regardless of accommodations they would be afforded which in many parts of the country were quite grim.
The competition was intense but fun as well with some clubs such as the Indianapolis Clowns looking to bring an aspect of entertainment to their high level of play. There were even women in the Negro Leagues as this picture illustrates. Toni Stone is regarded to be the first of three women to play in the Leagues leaving home against her parents wishes to play second base for the Clowns and Kansas City Monarchs.
The stories that come out at the museum are eye opening. There is video footage of games where the stands are full and everyone is wearing their Sunday best. There is the story of Cool Papa Bell who was said to be so fast that he could jump out of bed, flip the light switch and be back in bed before the lights went out. A whimsical story but almost true as the rooms they were given to stay in were so small that he may have almost been able to reach the light switch from his bed.
Then there are the stories of the challenges of eating on the road where it could be a struggle to find a restaurant that would allow the players to eat. Despite the indignities the players were held to the highest standards off the field as well as on the field. Years ago I interviewed Don Newcombe who played with Jackie Robinson about how he endured the day in day out pain of discrimination and he told me that Jackie always said that it was important that they not be bitter, rather they be better.
The man responsible for keeping the stories alive of course is the late great Buck O’Neil. O’Neil spent his life in baseball as a player, manager, protector and champion of the game and its history. By the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier O’Neil’s playing career was over. He never got to play in the major leagues and while most would think it was a tragedy that this man who had given so much to the effort would be too late, Buck himself always insisted he was right on time. This picture shows the statue of O’Neil at the museum. He is wearing his Monarchs uniform and is not on the field, rather he is behind the chicken wire, on the outside looking in. Even more poignant as O’Neil inexplicably has failed to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
There are artifacts such as contracts, ticket stubs, posters, equipment and uniforms as well as articles, some very disconcerting to read. It is the statues that grab the eye however as the Field of Legends is the centerpiece of the museum. Ten life size bronzed statues hold their places on the field. The detail is incredible, right down to the stitching on Satchel Paige’s glove. The lighting is dim with shadows, almost adding a church like quality to the room. Music from the day as well as ballpark sounds are played quietly to enhance the experience.
I cannot recommend enough a trip to the museum if you find yourself in Kansas City. If you are planning a baseball trip by all means consider a stop in KC. The park is great, the city is interesting, the food is hard to beat and the museum will give you a baseball experience unlike any you have had before.
If you can’t make it to Kansas City you can learn more about the Negro Leagues at www.nlbm.com or if you haven’t seen it yet watch Ken Burns “Baseball” which features amazing interviews with Buck O’Neil.
These are stories that should not be forgotten.