The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is restricted to 25% capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic, so museum president Bob Kendrick will see 300 visitors, at most, on any given day.
“I’m just happy to get some life back in the place after shutting down for three months,” Kendrick said. “It was disheartening. One of the darkest periods in museum history.”
The coronavirus has forced many to experience the same things Kendrick has at the Kansas City site. He sees more visitors from Missouri and Kansas, as opposed to fans checking in from Arizona, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and even Alaska during safer times.
On Sunday, all baseball fans will get a taste of the museum.
Major League Baseball will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues. Every player, coach and umpire will wear a commemorative patch to mark the occasion, and every team will honor the Negro Leagues through game day presentation, social media and radio and television presentations.
Kendrick himself will join ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” telecast to talk about the event.
MLB and the players association have made donations to the museum through the years, but Sunday’s show of support is on another level.
“They are all invested in this celebration,” Kendrick said. “And it fills me with great pride. Because it’s exactly what we hoped would happen. The circumstances are not what we envisioned, but the energy level the clubs have put into this is exactly what we hoped would happen.”
The league was born when Rube Foster and owners of seven teams gathered at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., and signed the league charter in 1920.
Note the timing of that. It was just after World War I, when Black soldiers fought for the country but returned to the same racism they experienced before they put on a uniform. For them, the war never ended. Meanwhile, the postwar economy was booming, and Foster believed the time was right for a Black baseball league.
“You won’t let me play with you,” Kendrick said, “I’ll create my own.”
The launch of the Negro Leagues allowed Black fans to watch Black players and dream of baseball one day being integrated. And Foster, a burly pitcher in his day, had the vision to organize it all.
Move ahead to 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Before he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, he played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. That was during the post-World War II era where, once again, Black soldiers fought for the country, while Jim Crow laws existed. They were depressed when they returned to the same racism as before. As they dealt with such hypocrisy, Robinson was their hero.
Baseball slowly integrated — by 1959 every team had signed a Black player — and the sport enjoyed a golden age because of Robinson and, later, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and others.
And here we are in 2020, with racism at the forefront again in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. People have demanded change.
Racial injustice? Civil rights? The Negro Leagues survived the struggle.
“People have rightfully identified the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for exactly what it is,” Kendrick said. “It is a social justice museum. It is a civil rights museum. It is just seen through the lens of baseball. And what I try to share that it is triumph over that adversity.”
The Twins will celebrate the anniversary in several ways on Sunday. Fox Sports North will air a segment on Toni Stone, the St. Paul native who was the first woman to play baseball regularly in a men’s league when she appeared for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. Bighead cutouts of Stone, Aaron, Mays and others will be placed in seats behind home plate and behind the dugouts. The scoreboard will be used to show videos of Negro Leagues greats between innings. FSN also will interview Twins executive and coach LaTroy Hawkins about the importance of the anniversary.
Kendrick spoke with Twins radio voice Dan Gladden for a segment to be aired during Sunday’s game. It was supposed to be a 10-minute interview.
“About 40 minutes later we got off the phone,” Kendrick said while laughing.
Kendrick has stories to tell. Many of them are funny. Many of them are not. Both types of tales are needed in order to understand the history of the Negro Leagues, its players and how it related to the Black experience in this country. This is what Sunday is about.
“I don’t want your only image to be the downtrodden things that have occurred as we have tried to create a pathway to equality in this country,” Kendrick said. “The success stories are just as important. The Negro Leagues is one of those great success stories built out of inequity.”
La Velle E. Neal III covers baseball for the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com.