The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened up to the public twenty years ago in Kansas City, MO. The 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization was established with the intention of “preserving and celebrating the rich history of African-American baseball and its impact on the social advancement of America.”
CassiusLife had the opportunity to speak with NLBM president Bob Kendrick about the importance of the museum to the sport and the United States, the legacy of its founder John “Buck” O’Neil and other notable Negro Leagues icons, how the museum is raising awareness about particular health issues that afflict the Black community at distressing rates, and more.
Bob Kendrick: Man, it’s my honor, it’s a pleasure. We so greatly appreciate the opportunity to share with your audience what this museum and this history are all about, and the exciting things that we are doing here at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum that we think are transformative in nature and that will have very much transcendent reach for generations to come through the life lessons that stem from this incredible story of triumph over adversity.
C: For our readers, would you mind giving us a little introduction to yourself, your history with the game of baseball, and how you became president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
BK: I’ll tell you what – it’s an amazing story in its own right! Now, I’ve been a baseball fan really, man, since I could ever remember, going back probably to when I was five years old growing up in Crawfordville, GA. Small rural town, east of Atlanta and west of Augusta. All of about 500 people! But like a lot of kids, I fell in love with the game of baseball early on. I’m a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, and the great Henry Aaron remains – to this day – my all-time favorite baseball player and my childhood idol, so naturally there’s a piece of my heart that is missing after we lost this legendary human being earlier this year.
I got involved with the museum almost by happenstance. I started as a volunteer with this organization in 1993 and fell in love with the story, fell in love with the amazing athletes who made the story. And honestly, I became enamored with it, engrossed in it. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I didn’t want to keep it to myself. I wanted everybody else to feel the same way I felt about it.
And so, in 1993, I’m working for the Kansas City Star. I’m the senior copywriter in the Star’s promotions department when I draw the assignment of promoting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s first ever traveling exhibition, an exhibition called “Discover Greatness,” and it is still touring to this day, 28 years later. It is on display right now at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, New Jersey. And so this was my first introduction to a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I had no idea that this little fledgling museum was here in Kansas City, and right here at the historic 18th and Vine, which was once upon a time the epicenter of Black life in Kansas City.
And so I draw the assignment to promote this exhibition, [and I] put together a promotional campaign that was tremendously successful. We drew some 10,000 people during the month of August of 1993 to see that exhibition. And I think at that point in time, the officials here [at the museum] knew that we had something that was pretty doggone special, and they were pleased with the way that I’d executed this campaign.
They asked if I would then consider joining their board of directors in a volunteer capacity, where then I started to handle public relations, community relations, marketing, special event planning, membership, etc. in a volunteer capacity for the museum.
I did that for five years, and after five years, I took that leap of faith, left my corporate job, and became the museum’s first ever director of marketing in 1998. And I was in that role for twelve years, [but by the time] when I left briefly I was vice president of marketing, and then thirteen months later, I was being reintroduced as the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
They knew how good they were, and they knew how good their league was. And quite frankly, the Major League players knew how good they were.
So it’s been an amazing journey for me: to go from being a volunteer to now trying to lead this great institution. But as I said, I fell in love with the story, I fell in with the athletes who made the story. And as I got to meet these legendary athletes, I fell even deeper in love because their spirits were just so amazing. To be quite frank, man, had they been bitter about things that transpired in their lives as they were trying to play baseball in this country, I think every one of us would’ve said, “You have every right to be bitter.”
But with every player I’ve ever met, not one of them ever harbored any bitterness or expressed any ill will towards anyone who may have attempted to perpetrate something against them as they were trying to play baseball in this country. Now did they like the things that were happening to them socially? Of course not! But they would never allow their hearts to be hardened with hate – and I just found that to be an amazing spirit.
And then the other thing was you couldn’t convince them that they weren’t playing the best baseball that was being played in this country! Now the world said the best baseball was being played in the Major Leagues but [the Black players] never believed that. They knew how good they were, and they knew how good their league was. And quite frankly, the Major League players knew how good they were.
C: You touched on something interesting: you were a fan of the game, and there were plenty of other fans of the game. Yet I can’t help but think of that Malcolm X quote about how there were always two Sunday services in America, there were two Americas on Sunday. (“I know as Malcolm X once put it, ‘the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.'” – James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro) And so even when it comes to how you’re talking about it, there were two baseballs being played, right? They were playing the same sport but…
BK: They ain’t playing the same game, though! (laughs)
C: And so baseball’s always being called “America’s favorite pastime.” And when people talk about baseball, you’re told, “Go to Cooperstown! You have to go to Cooperstown to see [the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum]!” And yet, the game of baseball today, as we’re playing it, wouldn’t be what it is without Black fans, Black players, Black coaches, etc., who weren’t even allowed to play in those leagues.
You mentioned how the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is in Kansas City, so it’s right “in the backyard” for so many of us. How do we work with the younger generations, baseball fans of any background, to make that… like, people go to Kansas City for BBQ ribs all the time! They go to Kansas City for music all the time! (sings a few lyrics from “Kansas City” by Fats Domino)
And yet when they say baseball, you keep hearing about Cooperstown, but K.C. is right there. How do we get them to understand that it’s on the same level?
BK: Well, you know, we’re fighting the battle of the fact that our stories overall just haven’t been documented with the kind of reverence and perspective that they should have been – at least in the pages of American history books. And that’s why these cultural institutions like the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are so vitally important.
Number one, they help us see ourselves in an entirely different light. Because I can tell you now, there’s nothing sad about the story of the Negro Leagues. Even though it is anchored against the ugliness of American segregation – a horrible chapter in this country’s history – the story here is what emerged out of segregation, [which is] this wonderful story of triumph and conquest, and it’s all based on one simple principle: “You won’t let me play with you in the Major Leagues? Okay, I’ll create my own league.”
And of course, that league was created right here in Kansas City, literally a stone’s throw [away] from my office, right around the corner at the Paseo YMCA on February 13, 1920. And then the Negro Leagues would go on to operate for 40 years, man!
From 1920 until 1960, and it finally ceased operations because those great Black stars from the Negro Leagues were now starting to transition into Major League Baseball immediately after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
So there was no replenishing system that would allow it to continue to succeed. And Major League Baseball had no desire on allowing Negro League teams to become a minor league system for it; it already had its minor league system in place. So now, if you’re an aspiring young Black ballplayer, you could bypass the Negro Leagues, go right into the minor league’s system, and then try to earn the opportunity to play at the next level.
the Negro Leagues might’ve been better in terms of the brand of play. Now, what it didn’t have was the finances that Major League Baseball had.
But nobody really knew their story because it hadn’t been documented. It’s not in the pages of American history books. So it is incumbent upon me and our institution to add a level of relevance, not only from a historical perspective but [also] what it means [up] to this day. We talk about it from the standpoint of the life lessons that stem from this amazing story of triumph over adversity.
And when you think about, though, here’s our national pastime, it was hailed as “our national pastime,” and it was set up to be separate – and this wasn’t equal either. Because in the eyes of many, the Negro Leagues might’ve been better in terms of the brand of play. Now, what it didn’t have was the finances that Major League Baseball had.
But I can tell you this with no level of uncertainty: the talent in the Negro Leagues wouldn’t take a backseat to any league. And [as for] the style of play! We talked about playing the game, but the game wasn’t played the same way.
Now, the Negro Leagues brought a style of play that was fast and aggressive and daring. It was entertainment at its finest. [That] didn’t that you weren’t going to see great fundamental baseball. But they understood that this was entertainment.
I have a great relationship with the new owner of the Kansas City Royals, John Sherman. He bought the team two years ago, and we talk about this all the time: that we are in the entertainment business. And the Negro Leagues understood that years ago. So when you went to a Negro Leagues game, you were going to be thoroughly entertained.
Major League Baseball, in that era, was typically a base-to-base kind of game: your guy got on [first] base, you moved him over to second [base], the big hitters came up and drove him in. And that’s kind of actually how they play the game today.
But in the Negro Leagues?! Man, they dropped that bunt, they steal second [base], they steal third [base], and – if you weren’t too smart – they were stealing home [plate]. So fans were on the edge of their seats. Or as my dear friend, the late great Buck O’Neil would say, “You couldn’t go to the concession stand because you might miss something that you ain’t never seen before!”
Folks were flocking to those games, and man, we were in full regalia! We’re dressed “to the nines,” as they would say. Looking good, going to those games, celebrating this sport with some of the greatest to ever play this game – but no one really knows their story.
And that’s why it’s so important that we bring it to the forefront. And then we not only bring it from the perspective of what it meant historically. But again, I am tasked with the challenge of making it relevant to what is happening in the lives of young people today.
And I think that’s the case for any history museum, you should be doing that. But particularly for a cultural institution like ours.
C: One of the things that really stuck out to me – at least one of the things – is the differences in styles of play. And how there’s always this conversation, especially in baseball, of “playing the game the right way.”
BK: Which is kind of a synonym for saying “playing it the white way.” And the players in the Negro Leagues heard that so much! They heard it so much from the Major Leaguers because they would be accused of, “Well, they’re just showboating! They don’t play the game the right way. They don’t respect the game.”
Because what you would see is a guy would go in the hole, dive, flip it behind his back, and start the double play. Well, today, whenever that happens, that’s a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight every day of the week!
But back then, as Buck would say, “If you’ve got something to show, show it! Don’t be ashamed, just show it!” But the other thing that he would say is, “It’s only showboating when you can’t do it!”
C: That’s true!
BK: And see, when I talk about players in the Negro Leagues, I talk about them as having been some of the greatest athletes to ever play baseball because they could’ve played anything. So the athleticism that they brought to the game was second to none.
So you were going to see things that you just did not see done at the other levels, and that’s no slight against they way they played it in the Major Leagues. Again, it’s almost reverted back to that style of play today: where they play for the home run, they play for the big innings, as they would say.
they played the same sport, but they weren’t playing the same game.
The Negro Leagues kind of believed in manufacturing runs. They had guys who could hit the ball out of the ballpark, but you had to be able to excel in virtually every dimension of this game. I mention Rube Foster, who founded the Negro Leagues here in Kansas City in 1920. Where Rube Foster might have seven guys in his lineup that could steal you thirty, forty bases a season, if not more! So the running game was really important. Pitching, defense, anything predicated around the sport – [they] were always highlighted, but they were gonna bring it with some flair.
You know, it always amuses me that people get mad when a guy flips his bat. Well, if you’re going to get because a guy flipped his bat in the Negro Leagues, then you were going to be mad all the time! (laughs) If you didn’t want him to flip the bat, you’d better get him out!
C: That’s the enthusiasm, playing with that passion I would think.
BK: You play with that passion, you play with an energy, and it’s not necessarily showing up anyone. But it added a dimension that was that entertainment value that people came out and wanted to see these guys play [with]. And they understood, they understood star power. And that’s something that I’m still not sure that our game has really grasped the way that it should.
Baseball, and I tell people [this] all the time… The thing that we love about baseball is its tradition. The thing that has hurt baseball is its tradition.
So it’s one of those things where the Negro Leagues, [the Major Leagues] could take a page from the Negro Leagues because they knew how to market their stars. It was Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs. And it’s Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants coming in to whatever town or city it was.
And Rube Foster was, what I think, one of the greatest baseball minds this sport has ever seen. He did it on every level: as a player, as a manager, as an executive, a masterful promoter.
Rube Foster would stand on the corner of 18th and Vine with a megaphone, and he’s telling everybody, as they walk by, what his Chicago American Giants are going to do to the Kansas City Monarchs. And guess what happened? The stadium was filled to capacity!
Now they rarely ever did do anything to our Monarchs, our Monarchs whooped them up! But he understood this whole idea of entertainment. The Negro Leagues, in general, understood this idea of entertainment. You’re competing for that very much hard-earned dollar, particularly during that era, and so you wanted to give the people what they wanted, and they wanted a show. And when you went to Negro Leagues games, you were going to get a show!
So you’re right: they played the same sport, but they weren’t playing the same game.