By Jerry Crasnick
Amid the kickoff to the Negro Leagues’ 100th anniversary celebration, Bob Kendrick can’t help but feel a renewed personal connection to Buck O’Neil, his friend, mentor and the driving force behind a shared dream.
Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum since 2011, is on the road a lot these days in his role as an educator, fund-raiser, raconteur and inspirer-in-chief. He’s a driven man in his desire to advance the vision of O’Neil, the late Kansas City and Negro Leagues’ treasure who helped make the museum a reality in 1990.
“I know how proud Buck would be of everybody keeping this museum healthy and whole,’’ Kendrick said. “He would be giddy. He would be smiling from ear to ear. I know we’ll feel his presence, as I always do. I tell people all the time, ‘I know Buck is looking over my shoulder.’ In many ways, he guides my footsteps.’’
Thursday afternoon in Kansas City, Kendrick’s feet will guide him to Kansas City’s Paseo YMCA, where he’ll welcome MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, MLBPA chief operating officer Xavier James, Royals owner John Sherman, former Royals second baseman (and current Jackson County, Mo., executive) Frank White, Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas, Missouri Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe and other dignitaries for a “National Day of Recognition.’’ On Friday and throughout the weekend, a new exhibit, “Black Baseball in Living Color,’ featuring the art of Graig Kreindler, will be open the public at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City’s historic 18th & Vine District.
The Paseo “Y,’’ fittingly, is the historic landmark where Rube Foster helped established the Negro National Leagues on Feb. 13, 1920. Foster served as the league’s first president and CEO while doing double duty as manager of the Chicago American Giants.
The stories of Foster, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige and other Negro League stars are particularly resonant in February -- Black History Month. Similarly, it’s a time for fans and historians to recognize that Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and numerous other Hall of Famers got their start in the Negro Leagues before going on to Major League Baseball stardom.
Kendrick, a repository of colorful stories, regards the Negro Leagues’ evolution as a baseball, societal and civil rights story rolled into one. The museum, by extension, is a trusted caretaker of that story.
“The story of the Negro Leagues is a story of America at her worst, but also at her triumphant best,’’ Kendrick said. “From the ashes of American segregation rose this triumphant conquest, and it’s all based on one simple principle: ‘If you don’t let me play with you, I’ll create a league of my own.’
“That is the American way. As I oftentimes say, while America was trying to prevent them from sharing in the joys of her national pastime, it was the American spirit that allowed them to persevere. That’s what captures the hearts and imagination of so many of our visitors.’’
Advancements are measured in everything from public awareness to exhibit space. Things have come a long way since Kendrick entered a one-room office in the historic Lincoln Building in the early 1990s and asked Don Motley, then executive director of the Negro League Museum, where he could find the shrine.
“You’re standing in it,’’ Motley told him.
In the early days of the museum, former Negro Leaguers wrote out personal checks to help pay the rent. The museum now houses scores of exhibits across 10,000 square feet. Later this year, it will expand by an additional 40,000 feet with the opening of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center at the site of the old Paseo YMCA, which suffered about $500,000 in flood damage in 2018 when vandals broke into the building and cut a main water pipe. The research center will provide room for new office and exhibit space, an events center and a new math, science and baseball interactive exhibit.
With no initial endowment, the Negro League Museum initially sprung from what Kendrick calls “hope and a prayer.’’ Thirty years later, Kendrick feels the weight of his responsibility as he criss-crosses America. Earlier this week, he traveled to Atlanta for an event. In a day or two, he’ll leave Kansas City and make stops in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., New York, Portland, Ore., Fulton, Mo., Sarasota, Fla., and New York again before he mercifully returns home and exhales.
While the museum has been able to turn a profit for the past eight years, a sense of urgency persists. The goal is to generate enough resources to ensure what Kendrick calls ‘long-term sustainability’’ through perpetual income for the museum. The stories, naturally, will follow.
“In my world, you never get to rest on your laurels,’’ Kendrick said. “There are no laurels. Your reward is to get through the year and do it all over again.
“This is a once-in-a-hundred-year opportunity. We’ve got to make sure we get this right.’’