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In June 2019, the not-for-profit Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) received the Gold American Business Award for Nonprofit Organization of the Year from the American Business Awards.
This recognition arrived just in time for a national Centennial Celebration honoring 100 years (in 2020) since eight Black baseball team owners created the Negro National League in Kansas City, Missouri. Through four decades, the league showcased world-class baseball talent and finesse among players who loved and wanted to play the game.
The NLBM has re-told this remarkable story of American sports history for more than 25 years. And, in 2006, Congress designated it “America’s National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.”
NLBM president, Bob Kendrick, says the Negro National League was born out of segregation yet offered inclusion. The League opened its doors to anyone who had something to offer and wanted to play — including three women.
Toni Stone, Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, and Connie Morgan all participated. Female executives for the League included Effa Manley, the first woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Kendrick gives Negro National League legend, John "Buck" O'Neil, enormous credit for his efforts on behalf of the NLBM.
“My friend, the late, great Buck O'Neil, gave 16 years of his life to help build this museum. With no disrespect to anyone else, it wouldn’t have happened without Buck O’Neil. I call the museum ‘the house that Buck built.’"
Before his passing, O'Neil's last position was volunteer chairman of the Board.
In 1991, the museum was still housed in a tiny one-room office space. Six years later, it moved to its new 10,000-square-foot location inside a cultural complex known as the Museums at 18th & Vine.
It operates only two blocks from the Paseo YMCA where Andrew “Rube” Foster established the Negro National League in 1920.
“It’s the story that drives this museum,” Kendrick says. “It’s America’s untold history about these courageous athletes who overcame tremendous social adversity to play the game they loved. The museum documents this once forgotten [time] in American history.”
More than two million visitors have explored NLBM since it opened. The museum also allows photography and video recording during accessible self-guided tours.
Kendrick believes history fans, and fans of underdogs who overcame adversity, appreciate the museum as much as baseball fans do. “You walk out cheering the power of the human spirit to persevere and prevail,” he says.
Film, baseball equipment, and other memorabilia; league history; and trivia games entice visitors. In late 2018, the NLBM acquired a beautiful gold pocket watch from Leroy “Satchel” Paige. He received it in 1942 before a game at Wrigley Field between his Kansas City Monarchs team and the Memphis Red Sox.
Visitors can test their own skills at the 44-foot-wide batting cage, too. In addition, life-sized bronze sculptures depict key league players amid a scale model baseball diamond.
“I think the Field of Legends is one of the most compelling displays in any museum, anywhere in the world,” Kendrick says. The sculptures were cast as if they’re playing the game.
These players represent ten of the first group of NLB players inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. A sculpture of O’Neil stands near the periphery, looking in as if he were the manager.
Kendrick began his association with NLBM in 1993 as a volunteer. By 1998, he had become the museum's first director of marketing. He departed the museum in 2010 but returned to become president only 13 months later.
Today, the museum has eight full-time staff members. About 20 consistent volunteers of varied genders, races, and ages and from various locales within the metropolitan area work in the gift shop, assist with events, and help in many other ways.
In late 2018, vandals caused approximately half a million dollars of damage to the still-developing Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. “We had started saving the old landmark,” Kendrick says. “We had gutted the interior and restored the exterior."
In 2013, the museum held a gala featuring the Jackie Robinson movie “42,” with actors Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman (who played Robinson) attending. Museum director Kendrick is in the middle. (Photo: NLBM)
“Somebody cut a main line water pipe. We were all devastated that someone would purposely try to destroy the building. It made you want to give up on people, but we were flooded with contributions from across the country. All of the work had to be re-done and we're getting ready to start the restoration.”
The building should be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Negro National League on February 13, 2020.
Kendrick says that people who come through the NLBM doors walk away with a greater appreciation for how great America really is.
“For me, it is the mere fact that we are saving a precious piece of baseball and American history from extinction. It is too important to let this piece of history die."
“When I look at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and everything it represents, we think it happens to be one of the most important cultural destinations in the world. The life lessons [it portrays] are some of the most-needed teaching tools that we can have. I also believe that the more we know about one another, the easier it is for us to get along with each other.”
Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer in Overland Park, Kan. and the Kansas City metropolitan area. Her byline has appeared in Chow Town/the Kansas City Star, Dreamscapes Travel and Lifestyle Magazine (Canadian), five AAA magazines, Midwest Living, Missouri Life, KANSAS!, Feast Magazine, and others. Lisa’s online stories have also posted at CivilEats.com, FoodTank.com, USAToday.com/10Best, OffbeatTravel.com, BusandMotorcoachNews.com, and WanderWithWonder.com. She is also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul, Messages from Heaven and Other Miracles (January 2019) and author of the 400-page statewide travel book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas (June 2011, The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton & Company).Learn More
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