Author’s Note: While this article isn’t a typical Beyond the Box Score piece (i.e. analytically driven), I do think sometimes stories get lost beyond the numbers. I made a recent trip out to the Negro Leagues Museum, and after reading this I hope it inspires you to do so as well.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, was done on purpose," Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues museum, described. In what started out as a tour of two quickly mushroomed into a small congregation as Kendrick continued, "This chicken wire was put in place here to illustrate the segregation each of the players back then faced. And visitors of the museum cannot go onto the field behind me – where 10 of the game’s best players stand – until they learn about their story."
The Field of Legends, just over Kendrick’s left shoulder, is the pinnacle of the Negro Leagues Museum, the centerpiece of a moving experience bearing the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Pop Lloyd, Rube Foster, Judy Johnson, Ray Dandridge, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Leon Day, and Martin Dihigo, the lone player in baseball’s storied history to be inducted into five Hall of Fames (American, Cuban, Mexican, Dominican, and Venezuelan).
Perched just to right of Kendrick was a life-sized statue of John Jordan O’Neil – or ‘Good Ole’ Buck,' as he’s often referred – who happens to be calling the shots as the club’s skipper. O’Neil is the lone member of the group outside of the chicken wire, symbolically bridging all imaginable gaps: age, race, and class.
"It was often said, ladies and gentlemen, that Cool Papa Bell, arguably the fastest man in the history of the game, was so quick that he could turn off a light switch, jump in bed and get under the covers long before the lights actually went off."
Kendrick spoke with such unparalleled passion and exuberance at each stop along the way that he nearly convinced those listening that they were actually present at a game where Bell’s galloping strides pushed him past second base before pulling up with a standup triple. And even that was only a momentary stop. Because it wouldn’t be too long before the Mississippi-born outfielder swiped home on a daring steal.
After player introductions that could be rivaled by none – including those famous introductions to the All-Century Team at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston – Kendrick led the group around the corner, into the league’s story.
The Negro Leagues’ history, outlined on the walls with pictures, quotes, and memorabilia, began with the formation of the Cuban Giants in the late 1880s and lasted until 1958, just 57 short years ago.
Along the way Kendrick pointed out numerous facts that many had never known before, including:
• The first professional team to use lights to illuminate a field for play at night was not the widely recognized Cincinnati Reds in 1935; it was the Kansas City Monarchs five years earlier, in 1930. The Monarchs carried around portable lights to play night games. And after confirming the year, I stumbled upon this little fact: the portable lighting system cost between $50,000 and $100,000…in 1929. Or about $641,000 to $1,282,000 in today’s money.
• The first World Series occurred in 1924 between the Kansas City Monarchs and Hlldale Club; the Monarchs edged out their competitors five games to four, with the series extending ten contests because one game resulted in a tie. The series was played in four different locations: Philadelphia, Baltimore, Kansas City, and Chicago.
• It’s suspected that former New York Giants manager John McGraw snuck Rube Foster into practice to teach future Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson the fade-away, which would go on to become the latter’s most dominant offering.
Before departing to meet up with some of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were heading out of town after a series with the Royals that week, Kendrick led the group past a reconstructed hotel lounge where players would have roomed and to the lockers of some more of the league’s greats.
And, finally, we made it on to the field.
No amount of writing – especially of someone of caliber, or lack thereof – could ever, ever do the museum justice. But if you’re looking for a baseball trip I highly, highly recommend heading to historic 18th and Vine and paying a visit to Good Ole’ Buck.
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For more analysis check out Joe Werner's site, ProspectDigest.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoltinJoey