There is a special place in a Kansas City district called 18th & Vine. Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martín Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, John Henry Lloyd, Ray Dandridge, and Satchel Paige, the first ten Negro Leagues veterans who were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, can still be seen as if they are playing in a real baseball game.
In a dreamlike setting their life-size bronze statues stand at their respective positions on a baseball diamond known by a name befitting their status: Field of Legends.
The recreation of the vintage stadium is the first exhibit that you see when you enter the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, but keeping you from joining them on the field is a chicken wire backstop. You want to walk on the field and join them, but you can’t.
The fence segregates you from the field; it’s meant to. Those who designed the museum want you to have some idea what segregation was like, even if only briefly and remotely. The players enshrined on this field were more than talented enough to play in the major leagues. But as you find out when you can’t reach them on the field, you experience something like what they did. You are as physically close to them as they were to the major leagues, yet you, like them, are still too far away.
The museum, however, has a good deal for you: In order to join them on the field (and you can) take the tour, learn their story, and earn the right to stand amongst some of the game’s best players ever.
You’ve already entered the museum through the turnstiles, and behind you is an illustration of the leagues, the teams, and their respective cities. Seventy-two teams–the two Major Leagues only had 16 teams during this era–played at different times in eight leagues that existed from 1920 to 1960. Some teams played many years, while others folded not long after they formed. Like the Major Leagues, the Negro Leagues had teams in the Northeast and the Midwest, but unlike the Majors, the Negro Leagues had Southern teams.
Next is the Grandstand Theater. Fitted with ballpark-like bleachers, this is the place where you start your tour by watching They Were All-Stars, an engaging and informative, 15-minute film narrated by James Earl Jones (and with a voice like his, who else would you want?). It starts with a stunning rendition of the National Anthem, and it takes you through a brief history of the leagues.
After leaving the theater, a sequence of exhibits, laid out in chronological order, guides you around the field. Just like the players in a game, you must round the bases.
Near first base is another life-size bronze statue. It’s Rube Foster, the former player who, in 1920 at the Paseo YMCA across the street from the museum, successfully led the effort to form the first Negro league. Foster was a baseball and business mastermind who in 1911 founded the Chicago American Giants, one of the most successful black baseball teams that predate the Negro Leagues. The Giants became one of the Negro National League’s charter teams. Even after Foster’s untimely death in 1930 and the demise of the Negro National League one year later, the Giants continued to play in other leagues until 1952.
Between there and the last exhibits, which include Buck O’Neil‘s Presidential Medal of Freedom and another containing hundreds of autographed baseballs, lies the story of the rise of the Negro Leagues and their inevitable demise. It takes awhile to see it all; and it should.
The story is compelling. Men who were denied the chance to compete carved out their own niche in America’s sports world. They did not level the playing field, they elevated it. They played in the South. The Major Leagues did not. The first night game was a Negro League game, not a major league one. Attendance at some games exceeded 50,000 and some of the black players had higher salaries than their Major League counterparts.
But were they better players? It doesn’t matter. What is clear from the museum’s presentation is that many of these men were at least as talented as any major league player. They belonged. But for a non-existent policy termed a “gentleman’s agreement”, they were excluded.
Rounding third, it gets better. The exhibits are less about excluding black players and more about what they did once reaching the majors. In one you learn that in the forty years since entering the majors, black players won 18 percent of the Cy Young awards, 25 percent of the ERA titles, 39 percent of the home run titles, and 48 percent of the batting titles. In another are displayed replica plaques of the Negro Leagues’ players who were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
You know that when you have reached the field–a trip around the bases takes awhile as a result of the absorbing exhibits–it is not a real one, but it feels that way as the excitement, the lore, and the stars are still there. Getting there is something of an emotional journey that 60,000 people per year are now taking. I have no doubt that number will grow.