Matt Whitener and Michael Tillery Interview (Part I) Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Museum
The Negro League Museum began in a one room office in 1990.
As your grandmother heads out to the porch just like any other day, you wonder what runs through her mind as she rocks…quiet and sipping her usual tea through the cultured edges of the proudest of smiles. You, your brother and sister run around the big tree that is mere yards away from the dusty diamond with the rusty backstop. The three of you have gloves, worn baseballs and new bats propped against the oak’s massive trunk. Your sister is the youngest at 7. Her bat is pink and has a lot of pop. She has that good fire in her eyes. You are 12 and your brother is 9. He’s the speedy one. You are the pitcher of promise. An all star on your pop’s team. Dinner was so good and you couldn’t wait to get outside and onto that field. Ever so often each of you glance over to her to see if that last sip is finally gone. She puts down cup that he gave her, gets that old glove out of the basket beside her chair and walks over to play the lovely game her father also loved. The game the Philadelphia Star pictured all over the household walls gave his soul to and collectively, the baseball spirits of the aforementioned ride instinctively through the three of you. Yes, you the siblings of Negro League legacy. This is what the dream should be and hopefully will be on this day…Jackie Robinson Day.
Matt Whitener and I spoke with Negro League Museum President Bob Kendrick for two hours. We all love the game of baseball and have each gotten chills from the game some time or other and will forevermore. I wanted to do an extensive interview with Mr. Kendrick for years because I’d missed that chance with Buck O’Neil. RIP good sir. This is a fascinating conversation and broken into parts so hopefully your mind desires the chicken wire Mr. Kendrick speaks of later. There was a game before Jackie Robinson was trotted out to make the past comfortable and eased into tolerance as if those of 42′s hue were insidious savages. While I find that quite disappointing humans had to be that way, I fully understand the significance and how it affected my baseball, coaching and writing world. Matt has a sound baseball mind, so I hope you enjoy Part 1 of this historical treat about a story that can’t be forgotten.
Michael Tillery: Mr. Kendrick, I did an interview with Justice B. Hill: We’ve Forgotten Our Negro League Past. Obviously, people should get to Kansas City and check out the Negro League Museum. It’s a passion of mine to get out there ASAP. Right off the Josh Gibson bat, could you talk about the origin of the museum?
Bob Kendrick: We started the museum in 1990. We started it Michael in a real cramped…one room office. Guys like the late great Buck O’Neil and other local Negro League players…there were still quite a few living in Kansas City at that time who literally took turns paying the rent. They kept our hopes and dreams alive to someday build a museum that would be a rightful tribute. A tribute to not only this great history but to American history as well.
When you talk about the Negro League Museum, you talk about it as grass roots as any organization as you will ever encounter. These guys would literally go around the table and say I got it this month. You had it last month. That’s how we got started. Certainly we would have loved to have an endowment or seed money in place, but it wasn’t there. This was at a time where there was nothing there at historic 18th and Vine — where the museum currently operates. It was housed in the Lincoln Building. It’s been an amazing journey. Incorporated as a 5013c not for profit organization in 1990, we opened our doors to that little one room office space in 1991.
My affiliation with the Negro League Museum began in 1993. I remember meeting with the executive director Don Motley. I walked into his office and asked “Where is the museum?” “You’re standing in it!” he said (we laugh). It’s been an amazing journey and I think it’s made the journey that much sweeter to make something from nothing. Making something from what most thought had no chance to succeed and prove them wrong. Here we are now 22 years old and our 23rd year of operations. We all are proud of having a hand in helping get through these 23 years.
MT: What should people expect to see walking into the museum? What are some of the attractions?
BK: Fortunately over these 23 years we’ve helped elevate the consciousness and some awareness that there were some pretty good players in this league. Those who walk in expecting to learn about some pretty good baseball players will not walk away disappointed. Here are some of the best baseball players to ever put on a uniform, and truthfully guys, we almost didn’t emphasize baseball players. By the time you leave this museum, you will walk away with a greater appreciation of just how great this country is. As I often share with our visitors, the story of the Negro Leagues could have only happened in America. Even though it’s anchored in the ugliness of American segregation, out of segregation rose this wonderful story of triumph and conquest. So, when you put the emphasis on the story. A story that really hadn’t been talked about, because history has treated it as if it never happened. As a result, countless generations of us have grown up and gone through school without knowing one of the greatest chapters of American history. That’s the story of the Negro Leagues because it is that profound. When you come here, you walk into an old ball park. That’s the way it was designed. It looks like an old stadium. The first thing you see is the field with the statues. The one you asked me about the other night Michael, but you can’t get to it. You’re separated by chicken wire. That was purposefully done. We wanted our visitors to experience remotely what segregation was like. The chicken wire is symbolic in this instance. Back then, if Black folk were allowed in stadiums, that’s how we were separated — by chicken wire – often times. We were separated from the white fans in an isolated part of the ball park. We wanted to invoke in our visitors a desire to say “I can’t wait to walk amongst those statues.” We wanted you to earn that right and do so by learning their stories. By the time you have learned everything they have endured in this country, the last thing you can do is take the field. Truthfully guys, in many respects, you would now be deemed worthy to walk out onto the field with those ten life sized statues that make up what we call the Field of Legends. Along that journey you will encounter tremendous pieces of memorabilia, artifacts and tons of historical photographs. There is also a timeline that will help our visitors not only parallel what was happening in the Negro Leagues, but also parallel what was happening socially in our country. That is one of the most important aspects of the journey and it’s all told through the eyes of Black baseball players.
Matt Whitener: I grew up having the pleasure of knowing a man that played in the Negro National League. He always had stories and it was a great way to learn the game. When the ball really got moving, and really gaining steam to become what the museum is now, how was the memorabilia and other information acquired? What was that process?
BK: And it’s still an ongoing process and for museums in general. Most folk recognize the NLM from when we first opened the new facility in November of 1997 right across the street from that one room office. I would say that 95% of the memorabilia was donated by the players or the players’ families. Without them there really wouldn’t be a NLM. Relinquishing and turning over some of that precious pieces of memorabilia, they’re the ones that are helping bring this story to life so that we can actually function like a museum. We are always out there scouring to find new pieces to bring in. There are new and great stories that need to be told. The challenge is also that we have to compete for artifacts given we are still a relatively new museum. I was telling some folks the other day that we’ve almost become our own worst enemy. We’ve helped popularize the story to the point we’re driving up the price so we can’t compete and afford to go get them. Private collectors are always there but that’s OK, because truthfully guys, I don’t think there was ever any time where people didn’t want to know about the Negro Leagues. They just had to wait to know about the Negro Leagues. They never had access to this story. We want everyone to know about these great heroes.
MT: Can you talk about the area around the NLM and the Black baseball that was played there?
BK: This is where baseball got its roots. This is the origin. Kansas City is the birthplace of the Negro Leagues. That’s why it makes sense for a museum of this nature to be located in Kansas City. In 1920, just two blocks away is where Rube Foster started the National League. It was the first successful Black organized baseball league. The Negro League went on to operate for 40 years from 1920 to 1960 and Kansas City is the birthplace. People come from all over the world to take a picture of the 18th and Vine street sign. They are walking the same streets that Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Jud Boojum Wilson, Bullet Rogan and of course the great Buck O’Neil. Also the great jazz artists like Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Lena Horne. They all walked these streets. 18th and Vine was a cultural crossroads where jazz and baseball came together. It was the essence of Black life in Kansas City during that era of segregation. We’re housed in the same building as the American Jazz museum. They were asked to resurrect this once very proud African-American community. It was exciting for us to take on the challenge of bringing this area back to life. Baseball and jazz reigned supreme here and yes, 18th and Vine was hopping! The only thing that rivaled here was probably Harlem during the Renaissance. A jazz artist could get a gig here more than anywhere else because all the restaurants and clubs had live music. You had the excitement of Black baseball and of course the great Kansas City Monarchs that not only drew crowds here in Kansas City, but across this great country of ours.
MW: I spent a lot of time in Kansas City. I’m from St. Louis and went to college in Columbia, so I’m laying eyes on what you’re talking about right now. The way you’re recreating it is amazing and something you can’t get from reading about it at this point. I think it’s interesting you bring up a more classic feel to Black America of that time and speak of the Monarchs. What is in store at the Hall of Fame that gives that feeling of what they dealt with on a day to day basis by being those stars for part of the country, but also largely ignored overall?
BK: That’s the fascinating thing that happens when people come here. You start to take this journey and see — first and foremost — the story of the Negro Leagues and the celebration of triumph. The power of the human spirit persevering and prevailing. That’s the way we treat this story. To be honest, none of those guys thought the Major League was better than them. The world did. Buck O’Neil said “Don’t feel sorry for me. Feel sorry for the guys we play.” These guys could play. Their contemporaries knew they could play. It was just the social condition of the time that had as much to do with it as anything else, so they created their own league. Simple principle. If you don’t let me play with you, I’m creating a league of my own. It was a great league that rivaled any Major League Baseball team in this country. They were drawing tremendous crowds to see the St. Louis Stars play. It was Cool Papa Bell or the acrobatic nature of a Willie Wells playing shortstop. Buck said for his money, Willie Wells was the greatest shortstop he’d ever seen. Willie Wells was Ozzie Smith before we knew anything about Ozzie Smith. Willie happened to have more power than my good friend Ozzie Smith. I love Ozzie to death, but he didn’t have the power Willie had but Willie had the acrobatic skill that Ozzie possessed. He hit for power and he hit for average. A lot of people saw these guys play. The majority of folks just so happened to be Black. They filled up ball parks all over this country.
MT: Researching this interview, I saw the names of John W. Bud Fowler, (Moses) Fleetwood Walker, George Stovey and Frank Grant. These players predated the Negro Leagues.
BK: Yes. These guys were pioneers relative to Black baseball. Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first known Black to play on an all White professional baseball team. Jackie Robinson holds the distinction of being the first Black to play in the modern era of baseball. Moses was the first. This goes back to the late 1800′s. We’ve been playing for a long time. It was nothing new. We were good at the game for a long time. The challenge was we didn’t have an organized structure until 1920.
MT: The gentleman’s agreement that subsequently went down in 1890. Could you speak on that?
BK: That agreement was spearheaded by Cap Anson. Cap Anson was an outstanding baseball player. Cap Anson is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. What surprises our visitors is there was nothing written that stopped Black baseball players from playing on White teams. It was just a verbal agreement. A gentleman’s agreement as you referred to. Essentially they were saying they were doing that for the good of the Black player. They didn’t want anything to happen to them.
Because Anson was so good, it was easy for him to build a coalition of followers that shared that same sentiment. That’s why you had — for the next six decades — no Black ball players on White teams until Robinson broke that color barrier. Justice and I talked about this a lot Michael. The Black press was instrumental in pushing for the formation of the Negro League. Even here in the museum, we have a section dedicated to the Black press. They ultimately pushed or the integration of the game. Guys like Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy.
(via LA Times)
“Wendell is the one who got the ball rolling on the whole thing,” Newcombe said. “He’s the one who recommended Jackie to Mr. Rickey.”
It was at the urgency of the Black press that prompted the need to create a formalized league structure. That being, Rube Foster was the brainchild behind that.
MW: One thing that happens with the Negro League is it all gets to a point where the focus is on the big names. You have Satch (Satchel Paige), Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard, but really there are many players making an impact before the aforementioned really made into a period I would call the Golden Era of the Negro League. What should we know about the Negro League around the time Babe Ruth was playing?
BK: Let me put it in perspective of how big the Negro Leagues were. In 1920 — when Foster formed the Negro League — over 400,000 attended Negro League games. This was big business. That’s one of the things we talked about. Negro League baseball was considered the 3rd largest Black owned business in this country during that era of segregation. You’re right. It exploded after the Depression. It absolutely exploded after the Great Depression. We had our baseball heroes. Bullet Rogan (pictured) is whom I consider to be the first superstar of the Negro Leagues. When he got to the Kansas City Monarchs, he was old by baseball standards then, but still was absolutely amazing. Great pitcher, but when he wasn’t pitching hit cleanup. Played the outfield and could do it all. Led the Negro League in stolen bases when it was 38 years old. Casey Stengel saw Bogan playing for the 25 Infantry team out in Arizona — when he was in the Army — and was drooling. He wished he could paint him White because he would have signed him right there. Stengel recommended Rogan to J. L. Wilkinson — who owned the Monarchs and Rogan would join the Monarchs as would John Donaldson. Donaldson was a great pitcher who absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame. Rogan is in the Hall of Fame. Historians have found 400 verifiable wins for Donaldson as a pitcher. That was the kind of talent we’re talking about in the early 1920′s.
This was a great league that took a backseat to no one.
Part II Monday, April 22.