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The Negro League Baseball Museum Tells the Story of a Sport and a Country Divided by Race

Baltimore_Black_Sox.jpeg
Wikimedia Commons
Three Baltimore Black Sox players

Next time you’re in Kansas City, stop by the Negro Baseball League Museum, right there on 18th and Vine, a historic little neighborhood where once upon a time jumpin’ clubs up and down the street wrung out late-night blues like nowhere else. There’s a jazz museum right next door, too. Don’t know jazz all that well? A few hours in that interactive place, and you’ll come away knowing much more than you dreamed to know or hear.

But make no mistake, the Negro Baseball League Museum, right next door, is anything but a graveyard. You'll see Satchell Paige wind up and deliver legendary fast balls out of his own odd-duck delivery. You'll meet dozens of great ball players who eventually came out of an impossibly segregated world to become Jackie Robinson and Henry Aaron.

My God-fearing grandpa was so intensely religious he could shed tears over the length and breadth of his sinful heart. He loved Jesus but not Black ballplayers. Never dawned on him that his prejudices were a sin, even though he claimed to know more than anyone what sin was. In 1953, the Boston Braves grabbed the franchise and took it west to Milwaukee. I grew up with the Milwaukee Braves, listened to play-by-play every night on a radio with a dim yellow face. No one I knew didn't love the Braves, except Grandpa, who followed the Phillies because they were one of the last teams to integrate. He died a year before Philadelphia picked up a Negro League shortstop named John Kennedy. I don’t know what Grandpa would have done if he’d still been around.

The fear-mongering about "critical race theory" seems inexplicable to me these days. How any teacher can assign To Kill a Mockingbird and not talk about racial injustice is a mystery. But then, try to explain Little Big Horn without mentioning broken treaties? Want to teach bleached-out American history? For heaven's sake, don't take white kids anywhere near the Negro Baseball League Museum because sure as anything they’re going to witness something very few of them will be able to imagine: two pro leagues, one black and one white, in a country divided violently by race. How many high school kids today, how many sports fans, have any idea that not all that many years ago, a wiry teen named Henry Aaron played for the Mobile Black Bears? All of that is not so far away, and not so long ago. For sixty years, the Negro Baseball Leagues grew big-time in a segregated world, and did so with so much success that when, in 1947, Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he sent out shock waves not only because his base-running, his hitting, and his fielding left white folks slack-jawed, but because Jackie Robinson was African-American. He changed American history.

American history. Not just sports history—American history. He made the world look different.

There’s a little ballpark right in the middle of the Negro League museum, a statue of old Satchell stands out on the mound looking for a sign from Josh Gibson behind the plate. Some who watched Babe Ruth clout homers were so blown away that they told each other that the Babe was almost as good a hitter as Josh Gibson.

I don’t know what my grandpa would think, but I’d like to be able to take him to the Negro Baseball League museum, stand him out there in the little ball park right in the middle of the field, let him listen to the stories these guys tell about big home runs and a thousand strike outs and the times they had to move along because they couldn’t stay in towns where laws forbade black folks from eating and drinking and sleeping.

There’s so much to learn, isn’t there?

A good place to start, really, for all of us, is right there at 18th and Vine, Kansas City, Missouri. You ought to visit. It's not that far. It’s a place--I swear—that’ll make you smile.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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