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Heartland of America Trek, Post #2 – Negro Leagues Museum

It’s been a while since I did one of these baseball treks–over ten years. What can I say? I’ve been busy. So has the world. The last time I did this, I drove all over the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida looking at landmarks and places associated with Babe Ruth and other greats like Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe. It turned out to be a much more emotional experience than I expected, partly because at that time we’d just started a war in the Middle East. (You can read about that trip under the “Bambino Road” tag.)

And here I am again at a fraught moment in American politics, sojourning around staring at monuments to our national pastime.

If you’re reading this blog, I probably don’t have to convince you that baseball is integral to the fabric of American society and history. In case you need some convincing, though, consider the following. Plenty of people have written or opined about baseball being American in a metaphorical sense, about how the game represents our national character in some way. As if the reason baseball is such a large part of the national gestalt is that, for example, it hearkens to our intrinsic understanding of the tension between urban and rural America, and the green field in the middle of the urban environment links us to nostaglia for the USA’s pastoral past.

Maybe that’s so, but reading the recent articles by John Thorn and Mark Souder (a former US congressman, by the way) in The National Pastime about early baseball pioneers from New York City, I finally began to grasp that baseball isn’t just integral to the American psyche in some woo woo soft-science hand-wavey psychological way. Baseball was quite literally part and parcel of the governing of New York City, and then post-Civil War, of the rebuilding of the US government. We talk about the “wild frontier” of the American West a lot, but less prominent in our national mythos is the fact that rival fire brigades tied to politicians and political parties vied for power in New York City. You’ve heard of the “New York Mutuals” as one of the early pre-professional 19th century ball teams? “Mutuals” = Mutual Fire Company. Ball teams were publicity and community outreach, sources of notoreity and fame. And as we all know, in a democracy notoreity and fame can confer ballot box clout.

These fire brigades were essentially small militias and they went to fight as units in the Civil War, and then when Johnson was elected President, his brigade moved to Washington D.C. with him. Baseball was the pastime of the ruling class of the nation as well was the common people during Reconstruction.

Aside: I resent the fact that in my public school education in suburban New Jersey we were never taught anything about the Civil War. Nada, nothing. We got the Revolutionary War four different times but the Civil War wasn’t taught at all. Also we spent maybe one month on World War I, a month on WWII (almost entirely centered on moral questions about dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with maybe a week on Hitler and Mussolini) and zero time on the Vietnam War. I am squarely Generation X. If anyone wants to know why my generation doesn’t seem to know anything about war, blame the partisan politics that sanitzed the curriculum of “controversial” topics before we got there.

Anyway. As I type this I’m riding in a car heading east toward St. Louis, with Pat Metheny’s “(Cross the) Heartland” playing on the car stereo. Yesterday we visited both the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which share a building at the crossroads of 18th and Vine in KC. Our main target was the NLBM but we figured we’d take in the jazz museum, too, if time allowed, since corwin and I are both fans of jazz. You can get into both for a discount price or just do one if you’re not interested in the other.

The first thing one does on entering the NLBM is file into a small theater–styled as a mini stadium with green wood bleachers and a few molded plastic seats–to see a short documentary. An older man was sitting alone in the front row. We climbed up to the back row (of about five rows) to the middle. His wife came in a minute later. The sound of crowd noise began to filter through the loudspeakers making us feel as if we were at a game.

Then a stadium announcer asked us to rise for the National Anthem, and on the screen a young man in a Monarchs uniform stepped up to an old style microphone and sang a traditional rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. You bet we stood up. I’m a true believer in the power of the anthem as the ritual start of a baseball game and it felt deeply appropriate in this context.

The documentary that followed gave a quick rundown of a few of the significant figures in Negro Leagues history but was mostly focused on telling the story of how segregation ended and how former Negro League stars (Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige) and then later African American players (Kirby Puckett, Ozzie Smith, Reggie Jackson) were celebrated across the land. A family with children came in shortly after the anthem ended.

I’ve read a lot of books and articles about the Negro Leagues so I didn’t learn a lot I didn’t know, but as we went through the displays of historical facts and images, with some memorabilia here and there, I got the feeling the other people going through did. It started out empty when we left the theater, but a tour group of about a dozen older black men and several small groups of white baseball tourists came in while we were just starting out. The guy leading the tour group was a middle-aged black man who had some connection to the museum (he spoke of “our collection” and “we”) but I didn’t want to interrupt him to ask him who he was, so I just listened and eavesdropped on his patter. He didn’t seem to be a historian or curator (he had a couple of facts wrong…) but clearly cared deeply about what was going on, and enjoyed wowing the group with some classic tales of segregation.

Most of what I didn’t know was tidbits, like about the restaurant owner in Montana who refused to serve the Monarchs when they went there to play a game against the local white team. The white team owner told the restaurant owner he better just take his money back (for game tickets he’d bought, resumably) because if the team didn’t eat, they were cancelling the game and leaving town. The restaurant relented and ended up having their biggest sales night ever as everyone in town came in to get autographs of the Monarchs players.

These are bittersweet stories to hear. That restaurant owner ended up making a ton of money off the Monarchs and their fans. Did he have a huge change of heart and start fighting for equality after that? Probably not, if the ways racism is rearing its head right now in American politics is any indication.

One element of the documentary that was repeated in the displays of the museum is that one of the things that led to the Civil Rights movement is the fact that once black Americans went and fought the Nazis in World War II it became harder and harder to stomach that it was okay to destroy racism and fight for freedom in Europe but folks were supposed to put up with it here at home. Many Negro Leagues players fought in WWII. They also experienced what life was like without segretation when they traveled to Cuba to train and to play in the Cuban winter leagues. In Cuba they were treated like kings, stayed in the finest hotels and ate in the best restaurants. In the States they had to camp in the woods near the ballpark if the local hotels refused them service. If that doesn’t make you ask “what the fuck, America?” I don’t know what will.

A thing I did not know: the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was black.

It’s not just me that is “making” my trip to the NLBM into something political. It’s not possible to tell the history of the Negro Leagues without telling the history of the fight for civil rights in the US. Unlike the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which made a choice to present the history of rock and roll as the tale of social upheaval in the USA through the lens of pop culture, when they could have just made it a bunch of eye-popping memorabilia from Elvis and Janis Joplin, you can’t make a facile Disneyfied version of Negro League history.

Speaking of rock and roll, though, one of the more eye-popping exhibits at the NLBM is a set of cases of autographed baseballs. Hundreds of balls signed by everyone from Ernie Banks to Mamie “Peanut” Johnson (did I mention there were female players in the Negro Leagues, too?) donated by Geddy Lee, the bass player from Rush. Lee’s not even from the U.S. though he is North American (Canadian). Baseball is much, much bigger than the United States, but we’ll have to talk about Cuba, Japan, and Canada in some other article.

As the story was told by the tour guide, Geddy Lee called up the musem one day and said he had a few balls to donate. At first they weren’t interested, but then he said it was more than just a few and they said sure, send them. They were thinking it was going to be like 18-20 balls. One day a semi truck pulls up outside the museum and it had the full collection and the display cases. Lee had been collecting Negro League autographed balls all his life. (I kind of wonder how his interest in the Negro Leagues fits with his objectivist philosophy? Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to ask him.)

The last segment of the museum is a small baseball field with a life size bronze statue at each position: Josh Gibson at catcher, Martin Dihigo in the batters box, Satchel Paige on the mound, and so on.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also write a bunch about Buck O’Neil, who as far as I can tell was the unofficial ambassador/mayor/toastmaster of Kansas City for the entire latter half of his life. Many baseball fans know him from the extensive footage of interviews with him used in the Ken Burns BASEBALL mega-documentary. Statues, signs, plaques, and photographs of him are everywhere we went in Kansas City, including Kauffman Stadium, but especially at the NLBM. His voice was the voice of the announcer in the mini-stadium at the entrance of the museum. His name was on the bridge we entered Kansas City through. I can’t really summarize his contributions to baseball, Negro League baseball, or Kansas City here other than to say they were vast. Google him.

We still had time before we needed to leave for the ballpark to see the Royals that night, so we then headed over to the American Jazz Museum. Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davsis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and many others have interactive displays there discussing their lives and their music. I could have spent all day listening to classic 1929 Decca live recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and 1930s Charlie Parker sessions.

And guess what? Jazz performers faced many of the same challenges as the Negro Leagues players. White audiences wanted to pay to see them perform but didn’t want them staying in the same hotels or eating in the same restaurants as them. Eleanor Roosevelt quit the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when they refused to let Ella perform. The white record companies didn’t want to record their music. So black-owned companies formed and recorded and distributed the music until crossover popularity became too much for white businessmen to ignore.

These two museums don’t just share a convenient co-location. Both have the same underlying message: check out these vital historical contributions to American culture from black Americans that were incubated during segregation (and then were ultimately mainstreamed/exploited/co-opted by white America).

I came to Kansas City with the thought in the back of my mind that we might find the heart of America, and I think we did. The truth has always been that the lifeblood of vitality of our culture is in our workers, athletes, and performers, in songs and striving. And for black American culture in particular to be continually suppressed as it has been is the cancer that threatens the beating of that heart.

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