Sure, Bob Kendrick is saddened by how the COVID-19 pandemic largely has shelved a carefully planned year of commemorations for the Negro Leagues’ 100th anniversary.
But as president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, he figures he owes it to the people who struggled to make it all possible in decades past not to get too down about a short-term detour.
“You can’t be a steward of this story and wallow in self-pity,” Kendrick said in a telephone interview.
Still, it hurts. “It’s still kind of surreal for me,” he said.
On Feb. 13, the 100th anniversary of the Negro National League’s founding meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, there was a major event featuring the commissioner of baseball, the mayor of Kansas City and the owner of the Royals.
Kendrick said the idea was to commemorate “what we certainly believe is one of the most significant occurrences not in baseball history, but in American history.”
Major League Baseball and the Players Association announced a $1 million gift to the museum.
“So we are off and running, man, off to a flying start,” Kendrick said, “and in less than 30 days, this thing has come to a screeching halt. So it feels like we’ve been in a long horror movie and it just won’t end.”
The museum closed because of virus precautions on March 14.
On Saturday, 100 years to the day since the Indianapolis ABCs hosted the Chicago Giants in the first Negro National League game, there were to be ceremonies in Indianapolis that included dedicating a new tombstone on the grave of Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston of the ABCs.
On June 27, there was to be a national day of recognition for the Negro Leagues on which all major-leaguers would wear commemorative patches.
“I thought that was going to be a watershed moment for Negro Leagues history and the Negro Leagues Museum, to see all 30 major league teams in an unprecedented show of solidarity, to basically tip their caps to the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said.
Still undecided is whether the museum’s Centennial Gala will take place as scheduled on Nov. 14.
“We are in this planning mode where we feel like we’re going to carry this celebration over into 2021, because it would be a shame to not pay the rightful kind of tribute to this occasion,” Kendrick said. “We’re going to regroup and figure out how to make the best of a difficult situation.”
"The greatest baseball mind this sport has ever seen”
As Kendrick noted earlier, “difficult” is what the history of black baseball in the United States is all about. And while that did not end on May 2, 1920, what followed illustrated both the talent and money waiting to be tapped.
There had been attempts at leagues for black players in previous decades, as well as successful independent black teams.
But nothing stuck until 1920, when a former star pitcher named Rube Foster and owners of seven other teams in the Midwest met in Indianapolis to form the NNL.
What was it that made that effort work? “I think it comes back to the brilliance and genius of Rube Foster, who I still contend is the greatest baseball mind this sport has ever seen,” Kendrick said.
“And nobody knows who the hell he is, even though he rightfully is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was just light years ahead of his time, and he had the know-how. He really did.”
Foster got crucial help from the Kansas City Monarchs’ J.L. Wilkinson, the league’s only white owner. Wilkinson had a long history of open-mindedness in racial matters, and Foster trusted him.
“Wilkinson was this 2000s man in the early 1900s,” Kendrick said.
He also had access to stadiums worthy of the product, which was crucial to the league’s financial success.
“I really think that’s why the early efforts around black baseball, the Negro Leagues, didn’t survive, because they didn’t have the stadiums,” Kendrick said.
Fans responded quickly. Kendrick said one of the museum’s prized items, owned by a Seattle collector, is Foster’s financial journal for 1920-25, in which he kept meticulous records.
“When we look at the Negro Leagues, we look at the romantic nature of all these courageous athletes who overcome tremendous social adversity to play the game that they loved,” Kendrick said. “Sometimes we lose sight that this was a thriving black business enterprise.
“You have to make money, and black owners were making a lot of money through black baseball. The players weren’t getting their lion’s share like you do today, but neither were the major-leaguers. The owners had full control over every aspect, including wages. But they were making a decent living playing the game they loved.”
The business success did not preclude years of volatility in franchise lineups and the coming and going of rival leagues. By 1931, with the Great Depression underway, the original NNL disappeared altogether.
But a second Negro National League was formed in 1933, and the Negro American League arrived in 1937.
It was an era defined by greats such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge, Cool Papa Bell and many others. There currently are 35 Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The beginning of the end came in 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers and integrated the majors, a defining moment in American history.
All of that was a long time ago, though. The pioneers of 1920 are long gone. But even players from the Negro Leagues’ later years mostly are gone now, too.
That is what for 30 years has helped fuel the Kansas City museum’s sense of urgency.
“We knew from the onset this was literally a race against time,” Kendrick said, “that the people who made this history, it wasn’t a matter of if they were going to be gone, it was a matter of when they were going to be gone.
“Not only the people who made the history, but heck, even the people who saw them play were going be gone.”
“The Other Boys of Summer”
Other historians and documentarians also are attuned to that expiring clock.
Lauren Meyer began one such project in 2007 when she interviewed the first of 12 former Negro Leaguers for a film that would be called “The Other Boys of Summer.”
It premiered in New York on Jan. 31, 2019, the 100th anniversary of Robinson’s birth. Only three of the 12 players she interviewed still are with us.
“As Bob says, ‘Time is ticking,’ ” she said. “If I didn’t start trying to hear their stories then, who knew who we’d be able to capture?”
Among those Meyer interviewed were Minnie Minoso, who died in 2015, and Monte Irvin, who died in 2016.
The lesser-known players she spoke to included John “Mule” Miles, who died in 2013 and delivers one of the film’s most poignant lines: “I’m not complaining; I’m just explaining.”
“That sort of puts it all in perspective,” she said. “It’s why I fell in love with the players. It’s because they’re not bitter. They’re not angry. They don’t come across that way. There is so much humility.”
Meyer uses her 42-minute film as an element in a diversity and inclusion program that includes panel discussions and has been presented for school and community groups as well as corporate events.
Last year it was featured during MLB’s All-Star Game festivities in Cleveland, and there was a roster of events planned for this year’s centennial, including at Citi Field tied to Jackie Robinson Day in April.
“For me, growing up as a Mets fan, that was heartbreaking,” she said of the event being canceled.
Meyer has reconstituted her program as an online offering, which is the best she can do for now.
But time marches on. Meyer said that when she talks to players and others who grew up in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, at least they often have heard stories of the old days from parents. Not so much with current youngsters.
“The kids’ response would be like, ‘Well, that was just stupid; why didn’t they let them play?’ ” Meyer said. “That’s partially the beauty of it, that kids growing up today think it’s ridiculous.
“That shows we have made some progress. We’re not there yet. But it’s nice to know at least the perception is different and the generation coming up now thinks, ‘What do you mean? That makes no sense. That’s dumb.’ ”