A news item that got very little play in the media caught my attention last week: Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association made a joint $1 million contribution to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
It caught my attention particularly because I have very indelible memories of my visit to the museum, which occurred about a year and a half ago. I also have some photographic memories, a few of which I am happy to share with you on this page.
Kansas City is an appropriate location for the museum. After all, the Kansas City Monarchs were among the most successful franchises during the heyday of the Negro Leagues — the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. During those decades there was no major league team in Kansas City but the Monarchs were champions 10 times.
The museum sits exactly at the intersection of 18th and Vine, which is the nerve center of a very rich African-American urban culture. The large building that houses the museum also contains an excellent jazz museum, which features many African-American artists. Outside the museum there are a number of restaurants that specialize in barbecued ribs. (I went to the one recommended by a security guard at the museum.)
The central area of the baseball museum is built to resemble a miniature stadium, complete with lights and a scoreboard. It houses nine statues, one placed at every position on the field. They represent the top Negro League player at every position.
The other displays form a semi-circle around the “stadium,” and they tell the story of the Negro Leagues. There are plenty of old photos and artifacts, including items worn by Josh Gibson, who was probably the greatest Negro League player of all. There is a section devoted to the contributions of Rube Foster, a player, manager and later a founder of the Negro National League. There is one section that displays more than a dozen uniform replicas.
The museum emphasizes the positive side of Negro League baseball and not the negative, even though there’s plenty negative that could draw focus. Negro League baseball existed only because racial discrimination and injustice were palpable parts of American life in that era. Baseball was no better and no worse than most other American institutions. People of color were not permitted to play in the major or minor leagues. If they wanted to play at all, they had to organize their own leagues, which is exactly what they did.
Many were great athletes and they played an entertaining style of baseball. We’ll never know how great, but here’s an indication: On one occasion a Negro League team managed by Foster played an exhibition game against the New York Giants. After the game Giants manager John McGraw said to Foster, “If I had a bucket of indelible white paint you wouldn’t have three players left.”
As a boy my father attended an exhibition game between barnstorming major leaguers, including Ty Cobb, complete against a team of Negro League players. He was amazed to see a catcher named Louis Santop pick the great Cobb off base twice in one game. For years my father maintained that Santop was the best catcher he ever saw. He relented a bit only after he saw Yadier Molina.
I remember a conversation I once had with Art Rust, Jr., a radio talk-show host in New York. Rust told me that as a boy his father took him to Yankee Stadium to see a Negro League game. On that day he watched Gibson launch a home run that completely left the stadium.
“I asked my father, ‘did I see what I think I saw?’“ Rust recalled. “He said, ‘Yes, you did.’“
Gibson was the only player ever to hit a fair ball completely out of Yankee Stadium.
When the major leagues finally integrated, several former Negro League players — Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Sam Jethroe, Don Newcombe — emerged as major league stars. Satchel Paige, well past his prime, was still an effective pitcher at the game’s highest level.
By then it was too late for players like Gibson and Santop. It was too late for Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Martin Dihigo, Judy Johnson, Buck O’Neil and many others. They were certainly great players, but we’ll never know for sure how great.
Their story should be kept alive and that’s what the Negro League Baseball Museum already does very well. I can’t wait to see how much better it does with an extra million dollars to spend.
A FEW STATISTICS (Wednesday’s games not included): Aaron Judge of the Yankees has an OPS (slugging average plus on base percentage) of 1.144. It has been 13 years since any major leaguer compiled a better number over a full season…Forty-one of the Phillies 76 games have been decided by two runs of less. The Phils are 5-7 in two-run games but 10-19 in contests decided by a single run…The Rays have committed 55 errors, 26 by middle infielders. No wonder they traded for a shortstop…The Tigers are 17-11 against teams in their own division. They have a losing record because they’re 17-31 against everybody else…Mookie Betts of the Red Sox is the toughest batter to fan, whiffing only 28 times in 338 plate appearances…The Brewers’ Zach Davis leads the majors in sacrifice bunts with nine. Perhaps that’s one reason why he has an 8-4 record as a pitcher despite a 4.96 ERA…There have been 14 complete-game shutouts pitched in the majors this year. Corey Kluber of the Indians and Erwin Santana of the Twins have each accounted for two of them…The Pirates are 15-10 in day games but 20-32 after dark…The Yankees and Nationals are the only teams that have not been shut out.
Hall of Fame voter Jay Dunn has written baseball for The Trentonian for 49 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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