July 21, 2010: Negro League Museum trying to keep history alive
KANSAS CITY, MO.—Half a block away from the YMCA where owners of a loose network of African-American baseball teams gathered in 1920 to form the Negro National League, stands a museum dedicated to celebrating segregation-era black baseball.
The Negro League Baseball Museum celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and has ambitious plans to expand its programming, but it faces serious challenges.
Midwinter news reports detailed budget shortfalls and declining revenues for the museum, which along with the American Jazz Museum anchors Kansas City’s 18th and Vine historical district.
As the economy tanked, sponsorship dollars evaporated, and lucrative licensing deals for Negro League apparel lapsed, costing the museum big money.
According to an Associated Press story in January the museum lost $30,000 in 2008, and was projected to lose more than $200,000 in 2009.
But NLBM president Greg Baker says the museum’s situation isn’t as dire as people think, and that a couple of rough years can’t temper his optimism.
“Our aspirations are much more ambitious,” Baker says. “We believe we have to expand this (museum).”
Baker, a former semi-pro pitcher, has arms thick and solid as oak and a passion for Negro League baseball that runs as deep as his Kansas City roots.
He took over the NLBM 18 months ago and would rather emphasize the museum’s assets than lament the lack of cash.
Baker says roughly 45,000 people visit the museum each year, and points out that the NLBM owns the YMCA building where the Negro National League was born.
The museum also has strong ties to the roughly 140 surviving Negro Leaguers scattered across the U.S., and to former major leaguers who, like Jays manager Cito Gaston, are old enough to remember segregation.
When a recent pre-game conversation with reporters turned to Kansas City’s famed barbecue restaurants, Gaston reminisced about his favourite barbecue joint in San Antonio, Texas. As a child Gaston would go there with an uncle, who would take him to a counter at the back of the building because black people weren’t allowed to enter through the front.
For Gaston, it’s important to celebrate the people who outwitted, undermined and eradicated segregation both in sports and society, and says the NBLM helps accomplish that goal.
“When it comes to supporting it people think ‘that’s a black museum, what does it have to do with me?’” Gaston said. “But it does have a lot to do with everybody who played this game.”
But the museum’s relationship with current major leaguers isn’t nearly as strong.
Each year, the museum hands out Legacy Awards to major league players and coaches of all races, and in 2008 Gaston earned one as the American League’s top manager.
He attended the award ceremony in early 2009 but says only a handful of players, including Curtis Granderson and Cliff Lee, made the trip.
When he visited Kansas City last season as a member of the White Sox, outfielder Dewayne Wise says former Sox coach Harold Baines told him to visit the NLBM, but that he still hasn’t made it to 18th St.
Unlike Gaston’s generation, who as young children watched Jackie Robinson integrate the majors, Wise says he didn’t know much about baseball’s racial history until his teenage years, when older relatives filled him in about segregated baseball.
“It starts in the community, reaching out to the younger kids and getting them involved,” Wise said. “When I was young I didn’t really follow baseball like that. I was good at playing it but I never really followed the game.”
Baker, meanwhile, isn’t bitter with current big leaguers over their tenuous connection to the museum, and is taking a Field of Dreams approach to strengthening the bond:
If he builds better programming, big-time black ballplayers will trickle back to Kansas City.
He says that process is already starting.
Last week, the museum teamed with the U.S. Postal Service to unveil a set of Negro League commemorative stamps.
In late spring, the NLBM sponsored a high school all-star game at Satchel Page Stadium on Kansas City’s south side, and Baker says they have plans for the park land behind the stadium.
“We’re focused on our next five years,” he said. “We don’t see ourselves withering away in front of people’s eyes. We just won’t do that. What we do is important.”
Copyright 2010 Toronto Star