A guy once asked the late great Negro League player and ambassador Buck O’Neil, “Well, Mr. O’Neil, what do you think about steroids?”
O’Neil’s blunt reply: “The only reason we didn’t use steroids was because we didn’t have steroids.”
Now, he “wasn’t condoning the use of steroids,” said Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Baseball Museum, who worked closely with O’Neil until his death in ’06 at the age of 94. “What he was trying to get people to understand, and what he always said is, I couldn’t tell you what I would or would not do if I wasn’t faced with that set of circumstances, because I never found myself in that situation. I can’t condemn anyone who did anything relative to this game.”
O’Neil’s philosophy is in stark contrast to MLB’s Hall of Fame selection committee, who like to arbitrarily decide when social behavior trumps the acknowledgment of athletic (ahem) dopeness . HOF voters have flipped up their snouts and turned their backs on suspected cheats, casting a dark cloud of suspicion over players of that era.
None of the immortal “PED Era” stars eligible for ’13 Hall of Fame induction, like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, or Sammy Sosa, will be getting a plaque in Cooperstown when the inductees are honored this weekend.
None of them got anywhere close to the needed votes, and it’s all because of baseball’s “moral” PED dilemma. In fact, the only guys who made it were a player, an ump and some other “baseball guy” from the late 1800s to early 1900s. If this is the year you decided to take your first trip to check the HOF inductions, you got screwed. The crowd will be looking light and it might be that way for some years to come. However, there is a silver lining.
Just as the Negro Leagues provided an avenue for black ballplayers and other victims of MLB segregation to flex their skills and be acknowledged for their talents, the NLBM is offering another option for baseball’s all-time greats who are getting major snub-work from the HOF.
It’s called The Hall of Game.
The Hall of Game, an event that the NLBM is introducing next year in conjunction with its Jackie Robinson celebration, offers some historical refuge to players who were clearly the best ballers of their eras, but whose HOF chances were tainted by suspicion/revelations of their performance-enhancing drug use.
The winners are selected by NLBM-appointed baseball brains who assess a pool of former major league players of any race who played from 1960 on and played the game the way they played it in the Negro Leagues.
“The beauty of the Negro Leagues was that it didn’t care what color you were,” Kendrick explained. “All they cared about was if you could play. So it’s in that spirit that we will honor former major leaguers who played the game with that same zest, that same feel, that same charisma and skill.”
The Hall of Game will replace the Legacy Awards, which, since 2000, the NLBM has presented annually to the best players, managers and executives (regardless of race) in each MLB league, for on- and off-the-field achievement. The awards, like The Larry Doby Legacy Award for NL and AL Rookies of the Year, are named after legendary players of Negro Leagues Baseball,.
It’s the NLBM putting its own spin on things. It’s a way of saying to these players that they were good enough to have played in the Negro Leagues, the Duke Ellington of baseball leagues. The main objective of these awards is to help baseball fans understand just how good cats like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and lesser-known Negro League stars really were.
“We felt the impact that the Negro Leagues had on baseball immediately, as soon as Jackie Robinson took the field the doors opened,” said Kendrick. “It also should serve notice of just how good guys were before Robinson. I mean, they didn’t just get good in 1947.”
MLB tends to deal with problems by ignoring truth, reworking history or erasing the past. In a lot of ways it’s no different than the philosophy that kept extraordinary black athletes from balling on the big screen until the late ’40s.
Kendrick says the NLBM isn’t acting as a safe-haven for steroids abusers. The museum just chooses to respect the philosophies of its founding father by keeping the focus on athletic and community achievement.
While there’s no guarantee that a convicted steroids cheat would ever qualify for HOG induction, the prevalence of steroid use in baseball has never been definitively measured, so to get involved in a “who juiced?” guessing game detracts from the obvious greatness of certain players.
“I know the ‘Steroid Era’ is an interesting set of circumstances for baseball to navigate around,” Kendrick said, “but [some of] these guys were too good as players to be ignored.”
In that vein, The Hall of Game refuses to let the juggernaut accomplishments of MLB’s chosen stepchildren get erased from memory. Barry Bonds hit 73 homers in ’01, won hella Gold Gloves, and walked an astonishing 232 times in ’04. Mark McGwire hit 49 homers in ’87, way before the Steroid Era really popped.
The NLBM is not in the business of law interpretation or standing on morality soapboxes.
Building an institution that can stand the test of time and accurately portray what Negro League baseball represented, on and off the field, was the goal when a band of local historians, business leaders, O’Neil and other former Negro League baseball players started the NLBM in the early ’90s.
It’s the world’s only museum strictly dedicated to preserving and celebrating the rich history of African-American baseball and its impact on the social advancement of America.
The original founders ran it out of a small, one room office in the Lincoln Building, which is located in the historic 18th & Vine Jazz District of Kansas City. Less than a quarter-century later, they’ve turned it into a national treasure, honored by Congress, visited by the top dawgs in sports and life. Kendrick is credited as being the marketing magician and driving wind behind it all.
“The work we’ve done over the last two decades plus…when you come here you really walk away with an even greater appreciation of just how great this country really is,” Kendrick said.
The story of the Negro Leagues could have only happened in America. Even though it’s anchored in the ugliness of American segregation, out of that segregation rose a story of triumph and conquest based on what Kendrick says is one simple principle: You won’t let me play with you, so I’ll just create a league of my own.
Excluded from the major and minor leagues, African-Americans began forming leagues as early as the 1860s. The numerous teams and clubs that formed over the next eight decades are collectively known as The Negro Leagues.
Although the Negro Leagues existed as a symbol of America’s best and worst qualities, and its demise was recognized as an inclusive triumph for Black Americans and dark-skinned Latinos, most agree that preserving the League’s history and honoring forgotten players is essential to understanding the evolution of race in this country.
“The historical context for African-American baseball needs to be constantly referenced,” saidLawrence Hogan, author of Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. In the documentary The Negro Leagues: Baseball, America and Segregation, Hogan added that, “Baseball becomes a vehicle for being able to understand racism and what it was doing to the fabric of the country and how blacks were responding to that and dealing with it. So often it’s looked on as a negative that made them into victims. Well, they were victimized; but more importantly — it seems to me — was what they did [in spite of] the stuff that came at them. And baseball has a way of getting at that in all sorts of ways.”
In the days of Negro League baseball, coming to the stadium was a community event for blacks on their days off from work on Thursdays and after church on Sundays. Everyone came dressed to the nines and baseball was at the center of black social interaction. The decreasing number of African-Americans watching and playing baseball today can be attributed to a laundry list of things from socio-economic conditions, to the infiltration of basketball and football, to the lulls in major action. Regardless of why it’s happening, Kendrick says the NLBM is aware and factors that into its everyday game plan.
“What we try to do every year is introduce urban kids to people who look just like them, and played the game as well as anybody to ever play it,” Kendrick asserted. “Not only did they play the game. They ran every aspect of a business operation around the game of baseball. They at least went out and tried the sport.”
Trying new things and taking chances is what the Negro Leagues stood for. That same philosophy drives Kendrick’s hustle to find innovative ways of keeping the NLBM’s candle lit.
The museum was losing money and lagging in attendance when former President Greg Baker resigned in the fall of ’10 and Kendrick was appointed president in March ’11. After a close board vote, Baker was appointed museum director in ’08, and many folks raged against the machine in support of Kendrick, who had been involved with the museum since ’93 and was close to museum founder O’Neil.
The transition of leadership was a controversial process, but Kendrick saw an opportunity to flip the museum’s fortunes by masterfully marketing three events: O’Neil’s 100th birthday celebration (which raised money and regained support in November ’11), Kansas City’s hosting of the MLB All-Star weekend festivities in ’12, and the resounding success of the movie 42, based on the life of MLB’s color-barrier breaker, Jackie Robinson.
Kendrick says the movie was the turning point for the museum because it introduced Robinson to a new generation of young people that probably never paid much attention to the details and background of what is now a noteworthy node on the American timeline.
The film touches upon the fact that Jackie’s baseball career began in the Negro Leagues with the great Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, so it created a level of exposure about something that, for many, had been mostly just a footnote to the larger story of Robinson’s civil rights impact.
The museum produced a huge red carpet screening of the movie, which was attended by Harrison Ford and other stars of the film, and helped raise resources for not only the NLBM but also for its partners, The Greater Kansas City Sports Commission. Kendrick says there’s also been a ripple effect at the turnstiles. As a result of the heightened awareness, interest has translated into a lot more business, with locals and fans of visiting MLB teams coming through to see the NLBM.
The day before the All-Star Game, it was reported that a record 1000-plus people flocked to the museum to see living legends such as Lou Brock stand next to a statue of his Negro Leagues’ base-stealing predecessor Cool Papa Bell and explain the museum’s importance to baseball history.
Now, the museum is setting its sights on the completion of an ambitious expansion project called the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, with a goal of truly becoming an international headquarters for Negro Leagues history.
The center, located at the old Paseo YMCA, served as a temporary home for baseball players, railroad workers and others making the transition to Midwest city life. It sat just outside the 18th & Vine district, a hotspot for black culture in Kansas City from the late 1800s-1960s, and a hustle heaven for homeowners, business, jazz music and baseball enthusiasts.
The building had been abandoned for years, so the NLBM saved it and they are now converting it into a research center in memory of O’Neil. The NLBM has restored the exterior of the building, gutted the interior and are now starting an intricate interior design. Kendrick hopes for it to have at least two floors functioning by ’14, which coincidentally would mark the 100-year anniversary of the opening of that building in 1914.
Six years later, in 1920, Rube Foster would lead a contingent of eight black independent baseball team owners into Kansas City and the historic site is where they met to sign the documents to launch the birth of the Negro Leagues.
Black baseball’s journey through American history has been a see-saw struggle for acceptance and representation. The NLBM highlights baseball’s checkered past, but also has a vision of being a trend-setter in baseball’s inclusive future. Protecting today’s titans, and ensuring that they don’t become lost victims of MLB politics and embarrassment, is one way to do it. MLB isn’t fooling anyone with the grandstanding.
Kendrick says a guy like Pete Rose – baseball’s spunky, hustling , no-nonsense hits king, who was banned from baseball for betting – would have a place in The Hall of Game. As would a great player of unblemished character, with a lunch pail, grind hard mentality, like Cal Ripken.
In that regard, the museum is doing what it’s been doing all along by preserving baseball’s entire history – the good, the bad and the ugly.