Negro Leagues Baseball Museum a national treasure worth saving

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Three men shared a bottle of Windex, a roll of paper towels and a dainty duster. They were gussying up the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. It needs to look its Sunday best. It may never get another audience like the one about to arrive this week.

As the All-Star Game hits Kansas City for the first time in nearly 30 years, barbeque (hit Oklahoma Joe's on Saturday and Monday for the burnt ends and thank me later) and baseball (the game that counts so much the participants are encouraged to tweet during it) will take center stage. Tucked off to the side, in a part of the city that used to be the center of black nightlife, is a museum Dan Rather recently described as "a religious experience," one that honors a part of the game history tends to forget.

The Negro Leagues were born here, at 18th and Vine, and they live on in a neighborhood the city tried without much success to gentrify. Disrepair and condemnation are a fact of life around the museum, which shares a building with the American Jazz Museum, a couple of gems in a brass setting.

So it needs to be perfect, and perfection begs for a $100,000 remodel, from the carpets to the exhibits to the cleaning products. They're hoping for healthy crowds and willing donors and new friends, like the most powerful man in baseball, who somehow never has stepped through the doors.

Bud Selig plans on touring the museum Sunday. He may not have much time to spend, but like everybody who walks through the tight aisles and ends up standing next to life-sized statues of the Negro Leagues' greatest players at the museum's powerful last stop, he will leave with a far different opinion and even greater knowledge of baseball's greatest shame and triumph.

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"We've got one shot," museum president Bob Kendrick said. "It ain't like we get a dress rehearsal. We just need to get this thing right."

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum nearly died a couple years ago. This is no exaggeration. Even the slightest bit of discord can waylay a non-profit, and what hit the museum was more like a wrecking ball.

An ugly transition of power facilitated the troubles. Instead of choosing Kendrick as the museum's new president, the museum's board went with Greg Baker, a local businessman. Outrage soared. Donations plummeted. Word broke in 2010 of the museum's financial troubles and painted a grim picture. Tax records show one even worse than the museum feared.

In Baker's one full year as the museum's president, it lost $303,536. Just two years earlier, it had made a profit of $1.25 million. By the end of fiscal 2010, the museum's savings had whittled down to $639,869, barely 40 percent of what it was two years earlier. The economy certainly hurt, as did the millions in licensing dollars that disappeared along with it.

There was more, though, a self-inflicted wound that would take years to remedy. When Baker took over, he stated publicly that the museum had relied too much on one man – on his personality, his charm, his legacy. And since that person was gone, it needed to shift away from that for its own good.

Anybody who read those words and knew the museum understood that Baker had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Because Buck O'Neil wasn't only a part of the museum. He was, is and always will be the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Quite often Bob Kendrick will catch himself. Spend enough time around a man and you're bound to pick up some of his tics. Buck had an all-purpose phrase – "Yeah, uh-huh" – that he used to answer questions, acknowledge tasks and salute the fine-looking women who walked by. Kendrick says it so much these days that his wife tells him he's turning into Buck, which he thinks is about the greatest compliment a man can receive.

Buck resurrected the Negro Leagues. He told their story in Ken Burns' seminal documentary "Baseball." He continued as the museum grew from a one-room office in 1990 to the expanse it has occupied since 1994. He toured America, told children and adults of Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston, of segregation and integration, of hate and love and how the latter always overpowers the former. He met presidents and dignitaries and never walked by a woman in a red dress. When Buck died in 2006 at age 94, he took with him the museum's physical and metaphysical heart.

History is only as important as the people who tell it, and nobody tells it like those who lived it. Kendrick can relate Buck's stories; they just won't be the same. Baker wanted to move past that by purging the shadow Buck cast over the museum. Kendrick, who toured the country with Buck as the museum's marketing director, cannot fathom the place without him.

Life minus Buck remains odd. Last year, for what would have been his 100th birthday, the museum planned a celebration and a Buck exhibit that would travel the country. At the exhibit's opening, Kendrick fixed his eyes on a pair of children who were no older than 5.

"It dawned on me then," Kendrick said. "There will be generations of kids who won't get to enjoy the pleasure of meeting Buck O'Neil and shaking his hand."

Even into his 90s, Buck had a great handshake, his long fingers swallowing yours. He was easy with a story and a smile and answered whatever questions anyone had, even about the worst conditions he saw in the Negro Leagues. He inspired people. Three kids biked halfway across the country simply to meet Buck and thank him. After another silly vote kept him out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the hall created the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Kendrick wants the spirit of Buck to live on through an even greater endeavor: The Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center, at the old YMCA off 18th, which was falling into disrepair until the museum tried to rescue it. Ollie Gates, a local barbeque scion, is heading the project. The outside is renovated. The inside is gutted. The museum needs upwards of $2 million to finish the project, money that begs for the sort of rich benefactors that don't at the moment exist. Buck was the museum's power hitter.

Instead, Kendrick says, "Now we have to figure out ways to manufacture runs, and that's what we're doing. We're manufacturing runs."

Every year before the season, Ryan Howard visits the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and walks among the bronze statues. He sees Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charles and Martin Dihigo. And, of course, Buck O'Neil. He did this long before he was Ryan Howard, superstar. It was a way to connect to his past, to the past of all black ballplayers, who understand that without the Negro Leagues, integration comes far later than 1947.

Howard is hosting a party at the museum Monday night, one of a hundred planned activities keeping Kendrick busy. There is the barbeque event Saturday night and the intimate brunch with Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson on Sunday. There are people to see, bigwigs to schmooze, a museum to save. The money woes aren't over yet, and whether it's Matt Kemp sending a check, as he did recently, or CC Sabathia and Curtis Granderson and Torii Hunter doing their part as they’ve done in the past, every little bit helps.

It's why Kendrick looks forward to the pre-game show on Tuesday. Fox swung by and taped a segment. Kendrick thinks it's airing in prime time. Between that and the Buck O'Neil Legacy Seat – the Kansas City Royals honor him every game by giving away the seat in which he sat for decades to a do-gooder in the community, and Robinson's daughter, Sharon, will occupy it during the game – the museum will receive perhaps the greatest jolt of publicity in its 22-year history.

"Right now, we're a great attraction," Kendrick said. "We want to become an institution."

Ultimately, that's up to others. Kendrick can't endow the museum. He can bring back the Legacy Awards, the museum's annual honoring of baseball's best players with an offseason ceremony, and he can reinvigorate a licensing program gone dormant. But that pales compared to others.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a treasure – yours, mine, ours – and should stay that way. It needs to live on not just for Buck but for thousands of others who played, coached and managed. Don't let history forget the Negro Leagues. Go. Tour. Enjoy.

The place not only looks perfect. It is.

Tickets to the Saturday-night barbeque-and-baseball event ($100 for members, $150 for non-members) and Sunday's Hank Aaron-and-Frank Robinson conversation moderated by Dave Winfield ($250) remain. Call 816-221-1920 to reserve them.

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