February 01, 2010
I should start by saying one of the best days I ever spent in Kansas City was at the Negro Leagues Museum.
It was the day before the 2003 season began and my dad and grandfather were in town to see the White Sox play the Royals on Opening Day. We paid our admissions on that Sunday morning and started looking at the fantastic exhibits full of old uniforms and scorecards. Each case was full of descriptions and stories to pore over and I think I read every word on every card. The thought occurred to me that there weren't many museums set up better for teaching one subject.
We looked at the amazing statues on the Field of Legends — everyone from Rube Foster to Oscar Charleston — and then watched a short movie featuring Buck O'Neil in the little theater. When we came out, O'Neil himself was standing outside and my grandfather engaged him in a little jabber the way old men often do. They called each other "young man," patted each other on the back and laughed together. Like thousands of other visitors, we shook hands with Buck, thanked him and left feeling as if the President had shown up to talk with us on a White House tour. We finished our trip by touring the jazz museum next door and taking a short walk down 18th Street for heaping sliced meat sandwiches, unparalleled burnt ends and sweet strawberry soda at Arthur Bryant's.
It's a day that remains hard to beat, one I'd recommend to anyone visiting KC.
Yet when I look back at that visit — or any of my four or five other trips — one of the nagging memories is how devoid the museum was of other visitors. I once reported a story on Roger Clemens(notes) taking a tour when the Yankees were in town and the only people in the place were The Rocket, his entourage and O'Neil — who served as a proud tour guide.
And that's why it comes as no surprise to read yet another story on how the Negro Leagues Museum is in financial trouble and facing an uncertain future. Part of the quagmire is based on a decrease in donations due to the recession, but a lot of the situation is based on the infighting among the museum's leaders. It's really quite sad. O'Neil died in 2006, but to see the way some already have forgotten his lessons and legacy suggests he actually passed away many decades ago.
So what to do about the museum — the only one of its kind — before it's too late? After once being one of its biggest supporters, Joe Posnanski believes the people in charge have "lost their way" and that the place might be "doomed." Baseball blogger @Wrigleyville23, meanwhile, thinks Major League Baseball should throw a lot of money at the museum to keep it afloat.
I think the solution lies in the middle. Move the museum to Cooperstown, N.Y., where it would have a better chance to flourish.
As Poz's piece suggests, the methods and motives of the current leadership have started to completely overshadow O'Neil's original plans for the museum. Its spotlight should shine on the performances of the great black players before the integration of the big leagues and their important place in the struggle for equal civil rights in America. That focus has seemingly disappeared in Kansas City and it seems doubtful that it will return. A fresh start in a new locale is needed.
As for Wrigleyville 23's plan, I would add that it's not only MLB's obligation to keep the memory of the Negro Leagues alive but our obligation as the rest of the baseball world as well. Bringing the museum to Cooperstown would increase foot traffic and donations. More importantly, it would expose more baseball-minded folks to the Negro Leagues beyond the usual fare about Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell.
(And I should say here that I envision the museum not being absorbed by the existing Hall of Fame — which already includes Negro Leagues members and associated exhibits — but remaining autonomous in a specially built wing or in its own building. The Negro Leagues deserve more than being turned into a simple sidebar.)
There are undoubtedly any number of logistical problems and challenges that such a move would face, chief among them uprooting the museum from the city that O'Neil and the famous Kansas City Monarchs once called home. The move certainly would rob the museum of a certain local flavor — and I'm not just talking about the post-trip barbecue.
But the simple fact remains that the museum is struggling to draw visitors in a town that's not exactly a magnet for tourists. So why not move it to the one place where everyone arrives with baseball on the brain? Wouldn't that be the best way to present the memories that O'Neil worked so hard to preserve?