Born out of a meeting at a YMCA in Kansas City in February 1920, Negro Leagues baseball celebrated its 101st anniversary in February. In a webinar on Wednesday, Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, spoke about the leagues’ history and lasting influence. “It strikes me that here’s a league born out of segregation, that would become the driving force of a social change in this country,” he said.
Established in 1990 and opened to the public a year later, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) celebrates the history of Black professional baseball in America. On Wednesday, Kendrick shared stories from that history and the impact it has on modern baseball, business and social justice.
Centennial and COVID-19
Last year, the museum had extensive plans to celebrate its 100th anniversary, but some of those plans were disrupted by the coronavirus. That didn’t stop the museum from getting creative and continuing on. In that way, Kendrick said, the museum during the pandemic has been similar to the league it commemorates.
“Resiliency is really the hallmark of what this story is all about,” Kendrick said of the Negro Leagues. “And I’ve said on many occasions as a steward of the story, you know that you cannot wallow in self-pity. Doing so would be doing a complete injustice to those who called the Negro Leagues home.”
After initially shutting down when the pandemic hit, the museum reopened and has been operating with reduced hours. Kendrick offered a baseball analogy to describe his organization’s response to the virus and shutdowns.
“Coronavirus was that big, nasty right-hander that just threw one high and tight and knocked you down,” Kendrick said. “You got to get back up, dust yourself off, get back in the batter’s box and figure out how you’re gonna hit this sucker.”
The museum has adjusted by putting more focus on virtual experiences. For instance, events that used to include authors coming to the museum to read their books, interact with the public and sign autographs have transitioned to online discussions and seminars.
Negro Leagues 101
As the museum celebrates the 101st anniversary of the Negro Leagues this year, it has launched an educational initiative aimed at keeping the leagues’ legacy alive. Negro Leagues 101 is designed to help people to learn about the Negro Leagues from wherever they are. The course includes a series of lectures, programs, and events diving into the leagues’ history.
“The overarching goal is to provide greater access to this history, which we think has tremendously educational value,” Kendrick said. “There will actually be a complete collegiate-level course where we can bring the Negro Leagues into the classroom.”
Breaking gender barriers
The Negro Leagues welcomed women to the field in the 1950s, Kendrick said, featuring players like Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson. It showed marketing savvy, but it also established the leagues as pioneers of inclusion.
“The Indianapolis Clowns would hire Toni Stone, hoping that they could generate a female clientele,” Kendrick said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
Women’s involvement in the Negro Leagues extended beyond the field. Effa Manley owned the Newark Eagles and “knew the business of baseball as well as any man,” Kendrick said. She became the first woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Those individuals were representative of the Negro Leagues, Kendrick said.
“A league born out of exclusion would become perhaps its most inclusive entity,” he said. “They didn’t care what color you were, and they didn’t care what gender you were. Can you play? Do you have something to offer? That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Jackie Robinson’s legacy
Kendrick reflected on the role of Jackie Robinson in breaking baseball’s color barrier when he went from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball in 1947. He said the pressure and standard Robinson held for African Americans was immense.
“Jackie … was as fiery and feisty of an individual as you will ever meet, but he humbled himself for the greater good” Kendrick said. “Because the first guy could not fight back. Nor could the first guy fail, because, again, (if) the first guy fails, there is no second guy.”
Kendrick pointed out that Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers years before Rosa Parks was arrested for her role in the Montgomery bus boycott, and while Martin Luther King Jr. was still in college. Robinson helped catalyze broader social progress in the country, Kendrick said.
“Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier wasn’t just a part of the civil rights movement,” he said. “It actually marked the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
Kendrick said he sees Robinson’s legacy living on in current athletes’ social justice stances, expressing pride in those athletes.
“Sports have always been used to break barriers in our society,” Kendrick said. “And so, for me, I take great pride that the athletes of today are utilizing their platform to speak out about inequality and social injustice.”