Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Some Ribs, A Museum, And Drab Concrete

Business took me to Kansas City over the last half week or so. It's the first time I've been there, and I can't say that I particularly enjoyed it. I didn't really get a chance to explore too much, as the lack of a rental car and job-related demands kept me pinned to the downtown area -- and wouldn't you know, the one week I'm there is when the Royals are out of town.

The downtown area is a complete mess, with construction on half the streets and others just dead-ending in a blaze of flashing yellow lights and cones. The city has a few of the traditional big-city glass and steel skyscrapers, but it's mostly filled with early century brick buildings and pre-war, art-decoish concrete skyscrapers.

Other than to the casino where I robbed Missouri's school children of $70 worth of books, I only ventured more than 3 or 4 blocks from my hotel (which was named for the same guy that the Royals original stadium, Muehlebach Field, was named after) twice.

Once was to eat half a pig (and a quarter chicken), and the other was to visit the Negro Leagues Museum.

I was worried that I wasn't going to get a chance to visit the Museum, but a later-than-expected flight out of town gave me the time.

The museum is in the 18th and Vine section of Kansas City, a three or four block long section of town about 3 miles east of downtown. They've tried hard to restore the character of the original buildings, including opening up what probably was a helluva movie theater back in the day. There's a well-known jazz club, the Blue Room, right next to the museum, which sits in a building taking up half a block, and which also houses the American Jazz Museum.

Being 9 AM on a Tuesday, there wasn't much going on in the neighborhood when the cabbie dropped me off. I walked a few blocks towards one end, noticing that the cute little storefronts on the far side of the street were actually murals showing the types of shops and businesses that populated the place in its heyday.

When you walk in the museum, you hand your ticket to a guy behind a window and pass through a turnstile. The opening room of the place features a large mural of all the teams, listed by city, that were affiliated with various incarnations of the Negro Leagues. There were five or so different ones listed for DC, including a major one that I don't know a whole lot about, the Washington Potomacs, a member of the Eastern Colored League.

To the left stands a life-size bronze statue of Buck O'Neil, gazing off on to a giant baseball diamond in an adjacent room. Buck has his displays, but the museum is anything but a tribute to Buck alone. As you make your way around, displays featuring old newspaper clippings, photographs and artwork tell the story of the inception of the Negro Leagues and the role black ball players had prior to Cap Anson and the intolerable "gentleman's" agreement that kept so many deserving players out.

It, of course, touches on Moses Fleetwood Walker, the true first black player in the major leagues (42 games in 1884), and Cap Anson whose power and influence as the game's biggest star and manager created the line that would not be crossed for decades.

What I enjoyed about the museum was that it recognized the contributions of lots of the smaller starts. Everybody's heard of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and the other inner-circle stars in the league. But it told stories about Louis Santop, a dead-ball era catcher who slugged with the best of them and Pete Hill, the fleet-footed line-drive machine from the same era. (Both of whom were finally -- and deservedly -- admitted to the Hall of Fame last year)

The museum proceeded chronologically, building up to the creations of the true Negro Leagues -- or at least the baseball everyone associates with them -- in 1919. Rube Foster, who had been a star pitcher in the league earlier in the century, realized that the loose confederation of barnstorming teams would do better if they were coordinated and organized. The Leagues were created right there in Kansas City at a YMCA not more than 2-3 blocks away from the site of the museum.

The museum had much to say about the heyday of the league, showing some of the trophies won by the champions, and emphasizing the quality of play of the league, that it was not the minstrel show of clowns that some think of it as. It was a league of hard-working, hard-playing, supremely talented baseball players who were denied any shot whatsoever because of what Buck O'Neil called his "beautiful tan."

The museum ends with the integration of baseball, showing how stars of the Negro Leagues were the stars of baseball through the '50s and '60s. (I particularly liked the photo of a 16-year old skin and bones Hank Aaron from the day he left to go play pro ball -- his nickname at the time was 'porkchop' because that's the only thing he ever wanted to eat)

There was a nice video near the end getting the star players of the '60s to talk about the transition, and for others who came later to reminisce and talk about the climate. Many of the interviewees, including Frank Robinson and Willie Mays, mentioned the disgust they had with the American League, which was generally much slower to integrate than the NL was.

The next section featured lockers from all the inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame who were associated with the Negro Leagues. Sadly, it featured just reproductions of their uniforms and didn't contain any real artifacts from their playing days.

That, if there is one, was my only disappointment with the museum; there just weren't many things. It did a great job of telling the story through newspapers and photographs, but seeing Josh Gibson's bat or Willie Mays' Negro Leagues uniform would've added to it. I understand, though, that most of those treasures are long gone, and the acquisition costs of some of the existing items are likely prohibitively high.

As you make the last turn, there's a wall with hundreds of autographed baseballs from celebrities -- politicians, athletes, singers, etc -- who have visited the museum. It was an interesting mix of people, all paying tribute to the great place. The final exhibit was that ball field that we looked in on at the beginning over Buck's shoulders. It was the Negro League dream team, bronze statues of the best players at each position: Buck Leonard at first; Satchel Paige pitching to Josh Gibson; Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston roaming the outfield alongside; Ray Dandridge, and Pop Lloyd on the infield.

I spent about 90 minutes there, and I would've spent more were it not for that flight. Sadly, I was the only one there during my time. I had the entire place to myself.

I stopped at the gift shop on the way out, looked at the hats and t-shirts before settling on a copy of Joe Posnanski's "The Soul of Baseball." I had been meaning to pick the book up for a while. As I've alluded to before, Poz is my favorite baseball writer, combining a willingness to learn and study the game with the ability to craft wonderful stories. He's Boswell in 1983. I love his writing because he's an optimistic person. He doesn't rip for the sake of ripping, and he always tries to see the bright side. But he does it without spinning or condescending, as it seems like Boswell in 2007 does.

The book is about a year he spent traveling around the country with Buck O'Neil. It's a series of vignettes, events that show the humanity of Buck, and what it is that made him such a tremendous ambassador for the Negro Leagues.

It's a terrific book that's easily readable -- I whipped the thing off on the flight. But it's not about baseball. It's not really about the Negro Leagues. It's about life. It's about optimism -- something I have more of than most of you probably think! It's about slowing down, living life, not taking things for granted and without bitterness for what's happened in the past. Appreciate what you have now and be thankful for the opportunities you DO have, not what could've been.

That's a universal lesson, one all of us can stand to learn from. That it's being taught by a man who, more than any other, could be full of bitterness and disappointment makes it all the more powerful.

I'm not really an overly emotional sort. But the end of the book, wrapping things up with Buck being passed over for the Hall of Fame and his death got to me. A man full of life, full of positivity lived that up to the end. Most of us would damn the fates and wonder what we did to ever deserve this. But in the end, you can practically imagine him smiling. The conflict between the expected emotion and the likely reaction, the tension between sadness, disappointment and contentment with one's station, coming on the day I toured his museum, his baby, seeing his story, and seeing the leagues through his eyes, got to me. It choked me up.

At the time the decision was made to induct just about everyone else but Buck into the Hall, I could see the argument for it. The rules are the rules, and the way the Committee was set up, it was to consider only their on-field contributions. After seeing the museum and reading the story, I think they -- and I -- missed the point.

I hope the Hall corrects its mistake. Buck wasn't a Hall of Fame player. Maybe he was Mark Grace. But as a human being and as an ambassador for all of baseball, but especially the Negro Leagues and the dignity of the great players who were screwed over for no good reason, there's nobody better. He's in the inner circle.

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