At the start of May, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City was in the news when Oakland Athletics play-by-play announcer Glen Kuiper appeared to use a racial slur when mentioning his and his broadcast partner Dallas Braden’s visit to the museum ahead of the series between the A’s and the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
Kuiper has now been fired by NBC Sports California following the incident, and both his and NLBM president Bob Kendrick’s reactions can be seen in the news segment below;
I had the pleasure of visiting the NLBM during a visit to Kansas City in April, and what this incident should not do is overshadow the museum and its mission to educate visitors about the various Negro Leagues and the exceptionally-talented players that participated in them.
In this article, my fellow BFN contributor Charlie Deeks will give an overview of both the social and cultural history which makes the NLBM so important before I give some thoughts on the museum itself.
For many years, the MLB self-imposed a total ban on players with Black-African heritage. In the very earliest days of baseball – the 1870’s and 80’s – a limited number of black men played in high-minor leagues.
However, after a number of threats and boycotts against teams who fielded black players, most prominently by Cap Anson – a Hall of Fame inductee, superstar of the early game and vehement racist – a formal colour bar was instituted in the International League, one of the game’s highest minor-leagues at the time.
Over the next decade, black players were slowly pushed out of the league until there were effectively none left at the turn of the century anywhere in major or minor-league baseball. While the affiliated major leagues had no formalised rule disallowing black players, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between team owners – with the tacit support of the first Commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis – effectively enforced one.
It is for this reason that it is vitally important to remember that the history of baseball is not just the history of the major leagues. Instead, baseball was being played everywhere in America, and by everyone, and there was nowhere where the players were so good and yet faced so much adversity just to play a children’s game but the Negro Leagues.
The first of the Negro Leagues was founded in 1920 against a backdrop of segregation, where ‘separate but equal’ facilities were the norm, and institutionally racist Jim Crow laws were in place across many states. There were a total of seven major Negro Leagues, all of which have been retrospectively recognised as true ‘major leagues’ by the MLB.
These leagues continued in operation over the span of forty years, with the last – the Negro American League (NAL) – ceasing to function in 1962. Once Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947, and was then joined by others, the Negro National League folded in 1948. Against the backdrop of the NAL operating in a much-reduced capacity until 1962, social movements arising from Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka – the court case that ruled segregation unconstitutional – in 1954, Rosa Parks’ bus protest on 1 December 1955 and the resulting Montgomery bus boycott that lasted over a year until 20 December 1956, and the Little Rock Nine in 1957 eventually led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. That the leagues and their players had to fight through intense systemic and individual racism to play before even these first moves toward equality is extraordinary, and it highlights the courage of those who first broke the colour barrier into the MLB.
As an effort to remember the exceptional courage, skill and passion for the game that these baseball pioneers showed, the NLBM was founded in 1990 by a group of former Negro Leaguers, led by its’ first chairman, John Jordan ‘Buck’ O’Neil. Buck was a first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs, then latterly its coach – and he made history as the first African American coach in the major leagues, working with the Chicago Cubs in 1962.
Among many others, his tireless campaigning for the recognition of Negro Leaguers by the National Baseball Hall of Fame led to the induction of seventeen baseball legends into Cooperstown in 2006. Though he sadly passed away later that year, and despite him missing out on being part of that class by a single vote, he made one of the hall’s greatest ever induction speeches on behalf of those that were inducted that day.
Since his passing, the museum has grown and grown, and the stories of the Negro Leagues have been spread more widely than ever before, opening its’ doors to thousands of Americans (and Brits!) every year.
In April, I embarked on a road trip around the Midwest of America. When I was planning the trip, the NLBM was one of the main reasons why I wanted to include a stop in Kansas City.
In a visit to Washington DC prior to the pandemic, I had spent a morning at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which at that time featured an exhibit on the Negro Leagues. As a baseball fan, I thought it was important to visit the NLBM at some point if possible in order to educate myself further, and so, I planned a visit to the NLBM, alongside the National World War I Museum and numerous barbeque restaurants.
To say that the visit did not disappoint would be an understatement; I ended up spending over two hours in the NLBM learning about teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs and pioneering figures like Rube Foster, as well as the league’s 1927 tour of Japan and the challenges black players faced when travelling between games in America.
Understandably, Jackie Robinson and other players who broke the colour barrier in 1947 also form a significant portion of the museum’s exhibits. It should also be noted that this breaking of the colour barrier is one of the main reasons why the leagues ceased to exist, as many of the leagues’ star attractions were now part of The Show, which was rightly recognising the talent of a player like Robinson, who was closely followed by fellow Hall of Famer Larry Doby and then Hank Thompson, by becoming increasingly integrated. Other future Hall of Famers like Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige then followed in 1948 before more and more black players joined MLB in the years to come, including Willie Mays in 1951 and Hank Aaron in 1952.
As Charlie notes, the museum also pays tribute to its founder – former Chicago Cub Buck O’Neil – before ending with a baseball diamond of statues commemorating important black players in each position. Sadly, the dugout of that diamond is currently populated by the original roadside marker highlighting Jackie Robinson’s place of birth in Cairo, Georgia, which was shot at and vandalised in 2021. It is deeply saddening to say the least that people who would do that exist, but it proves exactly why the NLBM is needed.
Finally, it should be highlighted that the NLBM sits in the same building as the American Jazz Museum. Therefore, by combining visits to both, visitors can learn about two important and highly influential aspects of black American popular culture in the early twentieth century. The museums also stand directly opposite the Gem Theater in the historically-black 18th and Vine District neighbourhood. The district has clearly been gentrified though, and it was striking to me that the only black people I saw while I was in the 18th and Vine District either worked in or were visiting the museums. Therefore, it is vital that both museums and the areas of black American culture they celebrate continue to operate and thrive.
On that note, 2023 promises to be a big year for the NLBM, as it has announced that it has secured funding for the creation of a brand new building for the museum. The new 30,000 square-foot building will be built adjacent to the existing museum so there’s never been a better time to get out and visit.
Visiting the NLBM is reason enough to head out to Kansas City, but if you can’t get there, there are lots of ways to experience and support the museum from this side of the ocean. They have created virtual exhibits, such as Barrier Breakers – from Jackie to Pumpsie – a history of the leagues and its players – and they’ve also got a selection of other resources, such as Storied, a set of 22 short stories about the Negro Leagues narrated by Bob Kendrick.
Finally, it is worth noting that Buck O’Neil got his time in the sun – he was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022. Thanks for everything, Buck!
All images – courtesy of Brett Walker.
Brett is BFN’s Oakland A’s contributor, and can be found on Twitter @BrettChatsSport.
Charlie Deeks is BFN’s Atlanta Braves contributor, and can be found on Twitter @Omashaft.