Robinson inspired MLK, others

By Dick Kaegel
Updated: January 18, 2010

This article appeared on BASN on January 19th 2010

KANSAS CITY — The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was closed Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Day. But, really, the Museum is all about opening doors.

Within that institution’s walls is told a story that runs from the Negro Leagues’ formation in 1920 to Jackie Robinson’s historic arrival in the Majors to Dr. King’s lasting legacy right through today.

“We’ve tried to treat this story as a Civil Rights story,” said Bob Kendrick, the museum’s vice president of marketing. “Most folks, when they’re introduced to the Negro Leagues, look it as a baseball story. But we’ve always felt that this was much more than a baseball story.”

One aspect that the NLBM, which marked its 22nd anniversary this year, emphasizes is the smashing of Major League Baseball’s color barrier by a graduate of the Kansas City Monarchs.

“At its core, it was a Civil Rights story because the Negro Leagues would give us Jackie Robinson, who was obviously one of America’s greatest heroes,” Kendrick said.

“What the museum does is somewhat boldly make the assertion that Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier wasn’t just an important part of the Civil Rights movement, but [it] actually signaled the beginning of what we believe to be the modern Civil Rights movement in this country.”

Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branch Rickey in 1945 and soon made history in the Majors.

“We’re talking 1947, and this was before Brown v. Board of Education and before Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of the bus and, as we relate to Dr. King, he was only a sophomore at Morehouse when Robinson signed his contract to play with Brooklyn in 1945,” Kendrick said.

“And, of course, President Truman would not integrate the military until a year after Jackie broke the color barrier. And so we’ve always made the assertion that what really started the ball of social progress rolling in our country was baseball.”

Kendrick doesn’t presume to know what exactly was in Rickey’s mind when he picked Robinson from the Monarchs.

“What we do know is that the talent in the Negro Leagues was so good, it opened up this opportunity,” Kendrick said.

The museum’s 20th anniversary celebration is a year-long project that officially launches on Saturday, January 30, with the 10th annual Legacy Awards night at the Kansas City Convention Center.

The museum tells the story of many great players, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell. The exhibits include artifacts, photos, film and statues of players.

When Robinson went into the Majors, other African-American players followed, and the days of the Negro Leagues were numbered. But something vital had been accomplished.

“When Major League Baseball opened up its doors and allowed all players, regardless of what color they might be, to take the field, the game got better,” Kendrick said.

“You had a better product for the people to come out and support,” Kendrick added, “and I think that still holds true in the baseball world today. All roads again lead back to the Negro Leagues, and that’s how we try to treat this story.”

“In many ways, we deemphasize the players, because we know that as you make this journey through the museum, you’re going to meet some of the greatest baseball players ever.”

“But what seems to happen with our visitors is they walk away with a better understanding and a better appreciation for what the role of these leagues and athletes were in the social progression of our country and really how our country got to be the great country she is today, even though there’s still work left to be done.”

To help mark the King observance on Monday, Kendrick will joined writers Joe Posnanski and Phil Dixon at the View Community Center, 13500 Byars Road in Grandview, Mo., for a program about NLBM co-founder Buck O’Neil.

It was O’Neil who for years led the museum and created a wide awareness for the Negro Leagues story. “I sometimes say,” Kendrick said, “that the story of the Negro Leagues is America at her worst, but also America at her triumphant best.”