Negro Leagues Baseball Museum could shine during World Series

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KANSAS CITY - Starting Tuesday, the national spotlight will shine on Kansas City baseball for the first time in nearly three decades.

What could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the coverage is the city's deep Negro Leagues heritage.

"Kansas City is the birthplace of the Negro Leagues," Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said. "People are excited about the heritage of our sport when they start to look at this World Series. It warms all of our hearts to see that people are taking notice that there is a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City."

Organized Negro Leagues baseball began in Kansas City in 1920 at a meeting conducted by a former player, manager  and owner, Andrew "Rube" Foster. It took place at the Old Paseo YMCA building, which still stands in the city's historic 18th and Vine District.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum started in 1990 as a one room office at 18th and Vine. It has moved locations twice - once in 1994 to a 2,000 square foot facility and then again in 1997 to the 10,000 square foot facility it currently resides in.

The museum commemorates the history of the Negro Leagues as well as all of professional black baseball. Kendrick said the World Series coverage will have a longstanding impact on the museum, much like when Kansas City hosted the MLB All Star Game in 2012.

"The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was the star of the All-Star Game," Kendrick said. "So here we now have another opportunity to gain the national stage and be right there in the middle of the spotlight with lots of media attention which really helps us make people around this country aware that there is a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. It has great impact while it's happening but it also has tremendous residual impact long after the game is gone. We're still feeling the impact from the All-Star Game two years after being the host."

The museum is filled with authentic jerseys, signed baseballs, and informative videos and exhibits detailing not only the history of Negro League baseball, but the lifestyle these players lived.

"For the baseball fan, I think it is still difficult for them to understand and accept that there were two professional baseball leagues operating simultaneously to one another," Kendrick said. "That's what this museum is here for, to help document, substantiate, educate, and celebrate a forgotten chapter of American history. A lot of people believe that if it didn't happen in the Major Leagues, it didn't happen. We're here to tell you that it did happen and it happened in incredible fashion."

Kendrick said the players did not just accept segregation. He said he admires that they started their own leagues and teams, one of which is a staple of Kansas City baseball history - the Kansas City Monarchs.

"One of the greatest baseball franchises in not only the history of black baseball, but baseball history," Kendrick said. "The Monarchs had one losing season in their nearly 40 year existence in the Negro Leagues. They sent more players to the Major Leagues than any other franchise."

Some of those players include baseball legends like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Buck O'Neil. Kendrick said O'Neil is a fixture in the Kansas City sports lexicon.

"He's one of Kansas City's biggest sports icons," Kendrick said. "His presence still looms large. It has really touched me, the love he's getting on social media as the Royals make this run in the playoffs."

O'Neil played in the Negro Leagues from 1937-1955, but was more well known as one of baseball's greatest ambassadors. He helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and was the honorary chairman of its board until his death in 2006.

"He was the like the father of the Negro Leagues Museum and Negro Leagues baseball in this community," Royals fan Paul Bailey said. "He had so many great stories to tell and so many enriching things you got to learn. He's a special figure to me and the community."

"He was the most unassuming star you could ever meet," Kendrick said. "Most of us who fell in love with Buck O'Neil never saw him play."

The director of the Royals Hall of Fame Curt Nelson said O'Neil was renowned for his ability to enlighten people on his Negro League experiences.

"He was a natural storyteller," Nelson said. "He was a great storyteller that went through that era."

The Royals honored O'Neil following his death in 2006 by starting the Buck O'Neil Legacy Seat Program. The team awards the seat, situated a few rows behind home plate, to a member of the community who embodies O'Neil's spirit through their contributions to the community.

"They still see it as an honor to sit in his seat," Kendrick said. "That's what Buck would have wanted. He wouldn't have wanted that seat to go empty, it's too good of a seat. I couldn't think of a better way to remember Buck."

Nelson and Kendrick said they wish O'Neil was still here to watch this Royals playoff run.

"Well this would be Buck's element," Nelson said. "He would enjoy this as much as anyone else."

"Somewhere in that great somewhere, ol' Buck is up in front of the big screen and he's jumping and dancing and prancing like we all have been," Kendrick said.

He'd be watching a team that reminds Kendrick of Negro Leagues baseball.

"Pitching, speed, and defense," Kendrick said. "Those were the hallmarks of the Negro League style of play. It's a much more exciting brand of baseball."

Now, baseball fans can watch this Royals team try to capture the franchise's first World Series since 1985 in Monarch style, putting the heart of Kansas City baseball history front and center on the game's brightest stage.