The hearts of Minnesota baseball fans may flutter at the first crack of the spring- training bat in Fort Myers, Fla. The Twins preseason warm-up may have fans planning road trips to the Gulf Coast starting in mid-February. But there’s good reason to veer toward Kansas City, too.
A celebration underway in that Missouri city has as much to do with baseball as does a Louisville Slugger or peanuts and Cracker Jack.
Feb. 13 marks 100 years since a gathering of owners, managers and players in Kansas City’s Paseo YMCA changed America’s national pastime forever.
Chaired by a pitcher named Rube Foster from Chicago, this meeting was the beginning of a new era. This was the day the Negro National League was formed, a league that would blossom into multiple leagues and sign some of the greatest players in baseball, setting records that stand today.
A century later, one block from the old Paseo YMCA, visitors from around the world come to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to learn about the people who played in these six leagues, at a time when sports and much of American life was not the rich, multicultural experience it is today.
The coming nine months in Kansas City will commemorate the 30-plus years that followed the founding of the Negro National League, culminating on Nov. 14. That’s not some date pulled willy-nilly off the calendar. It’s Buck O’Neil’s birthday.
And without Buck O’Neil, there would likely be no Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
The ‘soul of baseball’
John Jordan O’Neil was a first baseman, born in Florida in 1911 in the days when Jim Crow laws and segregation prohibited black and brown athletes from playing on the same teams as white players. Buck, as he was known for most of his life, played one season with the Memphis Red Sox before his contract was sold to another Negro American League club, the Kansas City Monarchs, in 1938.
As a player and manager with the Monarchs, Buck spent over 15 years with a KC on his cap. In the 1950s he entered the recently desegregated Major League Baseball as a scout for the Chicago Cubs, and gave St. Louis Cardinals great Lou Brock his first professional contract. He became MLB’s first African-American coach, for the Cubs, and then a scout for the Kansas City Royals.
But one of Buck’s greatest contributions is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, in Kansas City’s 18th & Vine historic district. While many people helped bring the museum to life in 1997, it was Buck’s passion, his energy and his stories that made the museum a reality.
Today, just past the ticket turnstile, there stands Buck O’Neil in bronze, his left foot up on a concrete step, his arm across his knee, studying the players before him. The Field of Legends represents some of the Negro Leagues’ best players. It is easily the most popular exhibit in the museum.
What made the Negro Leagues work
Among those who gathered at the Paseo YMCA on Feb. 13, 1920, was a man named James Leslie Wilkinson. He was owner of the Kansas City Monarchs — and one of the few white men in the room that day.
Wilkinson opened the door for the Negro Leagues to play in the bigger white-owned stadiums when the white teams were out of town. That allowed the Negro Leagues to generate enough ticket sales to pay its players professional salaries and still be profitable.
There had been black baseball before 1920. From almost the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, African-Americans were organizing teams.
Minnesota was home to African-American baseball teams before and after the advent of the Negro Leagues. The St. Paul Colored Gophers and the Minnesota Keystones played from roughly 1907 to 1911. They dissolved due to lack of financing nearly a decade before the first official Negro League was founded.
The success of the Negro Leagues can certainly be attributed to the talent of its players. Joe DiMaggio called Kansas City Monarchs and major league hero Satchel Paige “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.” Many consider catcher Josh Gibson a better hitter than Willie Mays and Hank Aaron combined. Cool Papa Bell’s unofficial 12-second base running record still stands.
The stories of all of them, along with their personal artifacts from the games, are a celebrated part of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Their likenesses stand on the Field of Legends, an infield inside the museum, in the positions they played.
The success of the Negro Leagues can also be attributed to an inclusivity that allowed three female players — Toni Stone (of St. Paul), Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan — as well as female owners and presidents. Take time at the museum to learn their stories, and how they met the double challenge of racism and sexism in baseball.
The Minnesota Twins will play in Kansas City June 12-14, which coincides with the Hall of Games ceremony at the Gem Theatre. This is when, on June 13, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will induct a former major league player into its own Hall of Fame.
“We [will] choose a major league player who represents the spirit of the Negro Leagues,” said museum president Bob Kendrick. “That’s not necessarily a person of color, but someone who was inclusive and respectful of the game.”
The next nine months will include concerts, fashion shows and more. But the big event is the Nov. 14 dedication of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. The center, housed in the former Paseo YMCA building, will include a sports science center, a public research facility and Negro Leagues archival material.
Where to stay
The 816 Hotel offers a Kansas City Monarchs-themed room (1-816-931-1000, 816hotel.com). The Southmoreland Bed and Breakfast Inn has a Satchel Paige-themed room (1-816-531-7979, southmoreland.com).
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat., and noon-6 p.m. Sun. (1-816-221-1920, nlbm.com).
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a Kansas City-based travel writer.