KANSAS CITY -- Baseball's lively past and hopeful present met in the perfect place Saturday night.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum held its 25th Anniversary Gala at the Grand Ballroom at Bartle Hall. Former MLB home run king Hank Aaron, who began his pro career in the Negro Leagues, headlined the event, along with fellow Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Ferguson Jenkins.
Proceeds from the event will benefit the NLBM and the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center, which is expected to open next spring in Kansas City. Nearly 600 attended, and the event exuded positive energy.
Not only is the museum moving forward, but the city it calls home is buoyed by its World Series champion Royals -- a team with the kind of daring baserunning and athletic defense reminiscent of the old stories of the Negro Leagues. The current Royals have key African-American players such as center fielder Lorenzo Cain and reserve sparkplug outfielder Jarrod Dyson. Beyond that, the impactful baserunning of Cain and Dyson were instrumental in postseason wins, and first baseman Eric Hosmer's dash from third on an infield grounder for a key run in the Series-clinching victory was in the chance-taking spirit of old.
Aaron said he felt a connection to the Royals.
"They kind of reminded me a little bit of it, if you look back and think about the kind of team that was," Aaron said. "[Royals manager] Ned Yost is a terrific manager. I remember when he started with the Braves [as a coach in the 1990s]. He and I were very good friends. He went from there to Milwaukee, from Milwaukee to here."
The NLBM has seen a growth in visitor traffic and exposure thanks to the Royals' success. NLBM president Bob Kendrick hopes this synergy can be parlayed into greater awareness among African-Americans about baseball -- both in its history and in the future.
"Our mission is to serve a precious piece of baseball and Americana that few of us were ever privy to learning about during our own formal education," Kendrick said. "That will always remain the core of our mission. But we will also have a responsibility to promote the game as it is played today, and hopefully influence it as it will be played tomorrow."
Any discussion of African-American impact on the game's history invariably leads to talking about the lower number of black players in recent years. Participants in the NLBM's gala didn't shy away from the issue, but their sentiments offered hope.
Winfield, with co-author Michael Levin, wrote a 2007 book, "Dropping the Ball: Baseball's Troubles and How We Can and Must Solve Them" that detailed participation, especially in inner cities, being threatened by rising costs and competition from other sports. Winfield now works as a special assistant with the MLB Players Association and as part of a joint program between the MLBPA and the Commissioner's Office dedicated in part to making the game more affordable for everyone.
"You've got to continue to talk about it," Winfield said. "We're probably in the middle of that changing pattern. It's a whole lot different when I played, because it was like 25 percent. It won't change overnight, but there are a lot of athletes out there.
"To play baseball ... is one of the best jobs in the world. ... I can't think of a better job."
The goal goes beyond increasing the MLB player ranks. Commissioner Rob Manfred told MLB Network in May, "The two big determinants in terms of fans avidity are, 'Did you play the game as a kid?' And the second one is, 'How old were you when you went to the ballpark for the first time?'"
The same could be said for off-the-field jobs. Jeffrey Hammonds, MLB special assistant for player program development, said many former players such as himself are giving back with the union or in coaching. But he envisions those who never make the pro ranks as players becoming candidates for off-field jobs in data sciences and analytics, which can lead to general manager and other major decision-making jobs.
"It's not just about how far you hit the ball, how hard you hit the ball, it's about consistency, tendencies, about probabilities, and that's not going to change," Hammonds said. "So it would make sense to create initiatives where a kid who might not be able to play physically can enjoy the spoils of this game. We can teach them STEM -- science, tech, engineering and math -- applications."
Until the attention to youth participation produces players, fans or off-field employees, folks are celebrating various victories.
"We don't have many African-Americans participating, and that's part of my discussion with the Commissioner, 'What are we going to do?'" Aaron said. "I was just so happy when Dusty Baker got to be manager with Washington [this past week]."