Breathing joy and life into the Negro Leagues, a museum finds warmth where heartache might be expected
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
At first glance, the story -- like so much else in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri -- is horrifying. Each word is a roller-coaster ride from shock to outrage and back to a consuming state of disbelief. It's a small display midway through the museum's timeline of Negro Leagues history, a 1925 Wichita Beacon story that, nine decades later, is too crazy to understand.
"ONLY BASEBALL IS ON TAP AT ISLAND PARK," the headline reads. The story is previewing an on-field clash to come between the all-black Wichita Monrovians and Wichita Klan No. 6. (No word on who the other five teams of Kansas Ku Klux Klan members might have been playing that day.)
The article opens with a caveat of sorts: Strangle holds, razors, horsewhips, and other violent implements of argument will be barred at the baseball game at Island Park this afternoon when the baseball club of Wichita Klan Number 6, goes up against the Wichita Monrovians, Wichita's crack colored team. It doesn't get any less absurd from there. It tries its hardest to read as a pure game promo -- both teams are playing good ball, should be a fun afternoon at the ballpark, what have you. The colored boys are asking all their supporters to be on hand to watch contest, which beside its peculiar attraction due to the wide differences of the two organizations, should be a well played amateur contest.
Be warned, though! To dissuade any funny business, The umpires have been instructed to rule any player out of the game who tries to bat with a cross. The note beside the article says that the Monrovians won, 10-8. Presumably, the Catholic umpires -- so chosen to avoid any possible favoritism -- didn't have to enforce that important rule.
Bob Kendrick is the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and lest you be concerned, he has no problem if you struggle to make sense of the display. He, himself, is giggling hysterically; he can't help it. "You can't make this up!" he said, choking on his laughter. "I tell people all the time, as Buck would say, 'You don't have to fictionalize this story to make it entertaining.' Just tell the story. Just tell the truth. It's entertaining."
The "Buck" in question is John "Buck" O'Neil, a Kansas City Monarchs legend, former Big League coach and scout who later became the patron saint of Negro League baseball until his death in 2006. Despite having played most of his career in the shadow of racism and segregation, O'Neil became a household name when he was the smiling, laughing star of Ken Burns' Baseball documentary, his stories of Negro Leaguers standing as the most enduring legacy of the landmark film project.
Indeed, the tales that resonate most are simultaneously the most jarring, just not in the way you would expect. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum doesn't just tell a story about the barriers that kept people out; it dazzles visitors with the amazing world that existed on the inside. The supposedly second-tier circuit was an unintended consequence of unforgiveable racism, but one nonetheless worth celebrating. And as such, the Negro Leagues can at least somewhat be seen not as a negative result of segregation, but as the home to some of the best, most entertaining players the game would ever know. "They were not lamenting the fact that they could not play in the Major Leagues," Kendrick said. "They never thought about playing in the Major Leagues! But you couldn't tell them that they weren't playing the best baseball in the country."
Or as Monarchs shortstop Jesse Williams said, "It was the ambition of every black boy to be a Monarch, just as it was for every white boy to be a Yankee."
This month, the Yankees (and no doubt a good many of their fans) will visit Kansas City for a three-game set against the Royals. And in between bites of burnt ends and ribs, they would do well to trek over to 18th and Vine, the ancestral home of the Negro Leagues and the current setting for the museum. The building sits a block from the Paseo YMCA, where owners of eight African-American ballclubs convened in 1920 in a meeting called by Rube Foster to create an organized league structure. The YMCA building fell into disrepair in the years since then, homeless people squatting inside, but the museum spent more than $4 million to refurbish it and create the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center, which should be completed later this year. Outside the building, murals depict O'Neil, as well as an all-star collection of Kansas City Monarchs, including Elston Howard, a Negro Leagues alum who would eventually become the first black player in Yankees history and earn a spot in Monument Park.
Kendrick encourages young MLB stars to make a trip out to the museum during their visits to Kansas City, and he's always grateful when they take him up on the offer. He regales the players with stories of the Negro Leaguers, making sure they go home with a deep understanding of -- and appreciation for -- what players such as O'Neil, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and so many others were able to accomplish under impossible circumstances.
"You'll never see a greater love of the game than you do when you come here," Kendrick said. "They had to love it in order to endure what they had to endure in order to play baseball in the 20th century. They were all so good."
CC Sabathia has been one of the most prominent African-American stars in the game over the past two decades, and he got to know O'Neil well before the Negro Leaguer's death. He insists that more players should make the trip to 18th and Vine, and proudly took his son a few years back.
Like everyone else who spends time with the history of the great Negro Leaguers, Sabathia was struck by some of the odd thoughts that kept coming to his mind as he walked through. He couldn't help thinking about how fun it all looked. The museum is such a celebration that you almost have to remind yourself of the circumstances involved.
But at the same time, Sabathia -- through the time he spent with Buck, from his own experiences and from the lessons that he tries to pass down to his children -- knows that African-Americans making millions in the Majors have a special duty to honor their forebears' toil. "There is a greater responsibility on me because I'm African-American," Sabathia said. "But it's up to us to keep the essence of the league alive, to pay it forward to those guys, and for me to do whatever I can to get inner-city kids playing baseball."
Josh Gibson is behind the plate. Satchel Paige stands on the mound. Cool Papa Bell patrols center field. The ballfield is the centerpiece of the museum, and it's populated by statues of Negro League greats. It is a stunning display, lifelike and gripping. The faces -- some young, some weary -- can connect with all baseball fans, even those who don't know a Pittsburgh Crawford from a Pittsburgh Pirate.
"These men never cried about social injustice," Kendrick said, pointing to the legends at their positions. "This is not a 'woe is me' kind of story." It's true, if somewhat oversimplified, perhaps a consequence of spending so much time around O'Neil, who would see a half-empty glass three-quarters full of the planet's sweetest nectar.
Several years ago, baseball writer Joe Posnanski traveled around the country with Kendrick and O'Neil, eventually writing about the experience in the book The Soul of Baseball. One day in Atlanta, O'Neil and another Negro Leaguer, Red Moore, sat and discussed the hopelessness that some players felt, but that they never did. To O'Neil, the Negro Leagues represented freedom. They played for themselves, for the money, for the memories.
"Funny," O'Neil said in his singsong manner that reads best in verse. "That's what I remember most. Stories. Don't remember the games much. Don't remember the names much. Don't remember the bad times. I forget who won and lost most of the time. Stories. Silly stories. I remember those."
Contrast that with the image of the Negro Leagues that screamed off the pages of August Wilson's play Fences, the film version of which stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and earned four Academy Award nominations this past year. Speaking to Washington's character -- Troy Maxson -- a friend says, "You've got some Uncle Remus in your blood. You got more stories than the devil's got sinners."
But Troy's stories of the Negro Leagues sound nothing like Buck O'Neil's. In a just world, Troy shouldn't be lugging garbage pails from the sidewalks, and he certainly shouldn't be aspiring to drive the truck; he should be a famous, rich baseball legend. The story goes that only Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson ever hit more home runs than he did. Meanwhile, a guy batting .269 is playing right field for the Yankees, but Troy hit seven home runs off the great Satchel Paige. For a man obsessed with responsibility, with duty, with the way things are supposed to work, the idea that he might have been ahead of his time is an unforgivable injustice. "I'm talking about, if you could play ball, then they ought to have let you play," he said. "Don't care what color you were. Come telling me I came along too early! If you could play … then they ought to have let you play!"
Troy's is a fictional story, but if anyone had the right to sing the same songs, it was Gibson. His life is essentially the story of the Negro Leagues, with incredible success and overwhelming endurance in the face of tragedy. He faced so much heartbreak, from his wife's early death to his own subsequent alcoholism to the most public of all degradations -- the fact that he never got the chance to play in the Major Leagues; that his death, in January 1947 at age 35, came mere months before Jackie Robinson integrated the Majors. (And, in what can only be called a bittersweet twist, essentially killed the Negro Leagues in the process.)
Yet while you could choose not to let Gibson play in your league, you couldn't make him go away. He is believed to have hit some 930 home runs in his career (although the level of competition from one game to another varied greatly), and in Negro Leagues games, he hit the longest home runs in three separate ballparks -- Forbes Field, Crosley Field and Yankee Stadium, where he dropped a ball 505 feet from the plate, off the back wall of the left-field bullpen, in September 1930. Stories persist about Gibson hitting a ball that left the Stadium's footprint entirely. And in perhaps the prototypical Negro Leagues legend, Gibson once hit a ball deep into the Pittsburgh twilight, one that disappeared from view in the hazy conditions. The next day, in Washington, or so it is said, a ball fell out of nowhere, prompting the umpire to yell, "You're out! In Pittsburgh! Yesterday!"
"I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron," said Negro Leagues and San Francisco Giants star Monte Irvin. "They were tremendous players. But they were no Josh Gibson."
For all that, though, "the Black Babe Ruth" was multi-dimensional. Any bitterness would have been understandable, but "the thing about Josh is, I don't really conceive of him, from the stuff I've read and the research I've done, as somebody who was fueled by anger about the injustice of his position," said Daniel Sonenberg. "I think he was a guy who loved the game of baseball, and from all accounts, for most of his life, he was a relatively happy guy. He was a great teammate."
Sonenberg is a composer and playwright whose opera based on Gibson's life, The Summer King, had its world premiere in Pittsburgh in April. It will get a second run in May 2018 at the Michigan Opera Theatre. In the opera's arc, Gibson -- "A Joshua without God's invitation, never allowed to cross the Jordan River" -- struggles against the obvious racism and other demons. In his biography, Sonenberg saw numerous theatric qualities, including the most standard of all opera tropes -- the "mad scene." Sonenberg read mention in several Gibson biographies of his having imaginary conversations with Joe DiMaggio, and he incorporated it into his opera. "These two guys should have been equals, at the very least," Sonenberg said, "and yet it's this imagined fantasy in the head of Josh Gibson. That probably was the single thing that really struck me. … There's just something about opera's ability to tell stories to really convey the emotional impact of a story that made it seem like a perfect fit to me."
Discussing his opera, Sonenberg chooses an odd phrase to describe the story of the Negro Leagues. "It's a story of American triumph," he said. "That these players elevated their game under those circumstances, playing three games in a day, traveling by bus, unable to eat in restaurants -- the indignities mounted. And yet, you have some of the best players ever to play the game. You have a level of play that was on par with Major League Baseball. So that is a great success story."
Or, as Kendrick puts it, "What makes this story a great American story is that out of segregation rose this wonderful story of triumph and conquest."
The story, though, needs to be shared. There are perilously few Negro Leaguers alive today, and as such, the responsibility falls upon players such as Sabathia, writers such as Sonenberg, historians such as Burns and Hollywood A-listers such as Washington and Davis. But most especially, the obligation lies with Kendrick and his staff in Kansas City. In their lives, the Negro Leaguers deserved much better than they ever got; in death, they at the very least deserve to be remembered.
Ray Doswell, the museum's curator, recalls a white Yankees fan who visited several years back. He was clearly emotional as he took in the exhibits, so Doswell approached and started a conversation. The man had grown up in the Bronx, just blocks from the Stadium. He went to Yankees games all the time. But he didn't even know what was happening during those Negro League doubleheaders on Sundays. "And he was mad," Doswell said. "He said, 'I could've seen these guys. I was right there. I could've seen them. I missed it.' He felt like something was kept from him." And whether baseball fans missed what was right under their nose or are too young even to have missed it, the museum has a story that they need to hear.
"What stood at risk was that this story could have died," Kendrick said. "The story was going to become extinct when the last Negro Leaguer died. The story had essentially toiled in anonymity until the rise of this museum. So from that respect, I think we are one of the most important cultural institutions in the world, because we're saving a piece of baseball and Americana that would be gone. It would be lost.
"Historians did us all a disservice. They never documented this, they never substantiated this. It was almost like it never happened. And I think that's why, for the majority of the people who come and see us, they are awed by what they experience; they are dismayed by the fact that they just now got to experience it. You leave questioning, 'Why didn't I know this when I was going to school?'"
O'Neil has been gone for more than a decade, but he still holds a revered place in the minds of all fans who know about the Negro Leagues. And to those who don't, he's still a perfect gateway, just as he was in Burns' epic documentary. This year, the Royals debuted a promotional spot that is simply O'Neil -- his voice lilting, his head bobbing, his smile to the moon and back -- singing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game," one of the signature moments from the film. To watch O'Neil sing is to see a man who -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- must never have known a cloudy day.
Yet the underlying tragedy remains. It's impossible not to acknowledge what was lost by the brutal, ignorant policies that deprived some of the greatest players ever the chance to perform on the main stage. Today's baseball fan has countless ways of tracking every moment in baseball history, but Baseball-Reference can't tell us how many home runs Gibson would have hit in the 1927 Yankees' lineup. Joe DiMaggio called Paige the best pitcher he had ever faced, but we'll never know what type of career he might have had if he had been allowed to play in the Majors during his prime. The easy question always asked is how these players would have held up, but perhaps the better question is how the greatest Big Leaguers of all time would have done against the Negro Leagues' best.
For Troy Maxson, the indignity was too much. He had every claim on anger, and he availed himself of that right. He couldn't bear the humiliation of having been good enough to be a contemporary of Babe Ruth's, but to have been too early. The real Negro Leaguers had plenty of cause to feel the same way, and to be sure, many of them did.
O'Neil surely had his gloomier days, but in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum -- The House That Buck Built -- the sun is always shining. And the title of O'Neil's autobiography is an almost perfect rejoinder to Troy Maxson -- I Was Right On Time, it declares, and you can hear Buck's smiling, happy voice just by looking at it.
In Posnanski's book, O'Neil tells a story of scouting down in the Deep South, looking for another tiny field in another tiny town. They came upon a ballpark, lights aglow, and figured that they must have arrived. But instead of finding the next great Major Leaguer, they realized that they had ended up at a Klan rally, where a Grand Dragon was preaching from the pitcher's mound. O'Neil and fellow scout Piper Davis, another former Negro Leaguer, sprinted back to their car and drove until they couldn't see the lights anymore. He laughed at the memory. He always laughed.
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.