Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star
Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine sat back in the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium earlier this season, his feet propped up on the desk, and spoke glowingly of his first visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
The former player, longtime manager and lifelong baseball fan never had before stepped through its doors in the historic 18th and Vine District of Kansas City. Never gazed upon the countless artifacts or read the exhaustive research recalling a bygone era.
It opened the eyes of someone steeped in baseball history.
“Great, it was great. I think everyone should go,” Valentine said at the time. “During the All-Star week, they need to keep it open 24-7.”
Not a bad suggestion.
That may be the only way to fit through the doors the thousands of fans expected during Kansas City’s moment in the spotlight. By the time Major League Baseball plays its annual All-Star game Tuesday night, the museum likely will have experienced a significant windfall, financially and in terms of awareness, possibly ensuring its future for years to come.
Museum officials expect to make upwards of $500,000 over the weekend.
The timing couldn’t be better for the museum, which has struggled back from the brink of closure brought on in part by damaging politics and petty infighting.
The museum was founded in 1990 by a group of former Negro Leagues players, including the late Kansas City Monarchs star Buck O’Neil, who would travel the world telling stories of the game’s great black players. One of his interviews proved to be a catalyst for the museum: He was featured in filmmaker Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “Baseball.”
Riding the momentum, the museum moved into a new facility in the late 1990s, not far from the old Paseo YMCA, where in 1920 eight independent black team owners met to lay down the bylaws for what would become the Negro Leagues. The museum thrived until O’Neil died in 2006. Greg Baker was appointed president rather than Bob Kendrick, a close confidant of O’Neil whom many presumed would be the natural choice.
The museum began to lose money, in part due to the downturn in the economy, and it was close to shutting its doors when Baker resigned in 2010.
Kendrick was appointed president last spring, and the last 15 months have seen a dedicated effort of rebuilding corporate relationships, raising awareness for the museum, finding creative ways to get people through the doors and, ultimately, raising enough money to keep them open.
“I had been following what was going on, even after I left,” Kendrick said. “I was a face many folks were familiar with, they trusted, and we had relationships prior to my departure from the museum. I had that luxury or advantage over someone from the outside.”
That didn’t necessarily make Kendrick’s task any easier.
The museum’s location, along with that of the accompanying American Jazz Museum, is far enough from downtown Kansas City that it’s difficult to reach. And once visitors find their way to 18th and Vine, there is little to do there besides visit the museums.
The Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association has attempted to address the shortcomings, promoting the museums throughout the city, and touting a trolley service that drops visitors at tourist attractions, including the two museums.
“History is history, and we’re no good without our history,” said Frank White, a five-time All-Star for the Royals during the 1970s. “I think the Negro Leagues is such an important piece of American history that had vanished, and would have vanished, if not for the museum.”
In conjunction with the All-Star game, the museum has put together two free exhibitions, “They Were All Stars” and “Baseball: America’s Game,” which are on display through Sept. 9. Both portray elements of an era before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and all the way through 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate.
On Saturday night, Sen. Roy Blount and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II are hosting “Buck, BBQ and Baseball,” a night of entertainment highlighted by an amateur barbecue contest.
The following morning, Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson will participate in a discussion of the game moderated by fellow Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. A reunion of former Negro Leagues players who became MLB All-Stars will follow – seven of the 20 are still alive, among them Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Monte Irvin, Don Newcombe, Minnie Minoso and George Altman.
Phillies slugger Ryan Howard is hosting an invitation-only fundraiser after Monday night’s Home Run Derby, and an All-Star game watch party is planned for Tuesday night.
“The timing is absolutely perfect, and sometimes the stars align,” Kendrick said on a busy Friday morning. “The museum is started trending in the right direction, we’re getting stable, and now you’ve got this great event that kind of pushes us that much further along.
“And like I’ve been saying, it’s not just the All-Star festivities,” he said. “We want to push as many people through the turnstiles as we can, we hope they buy everything off the shelves our of store – but the impact of this game will be felt for years to come.”