The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League in 2020.
Most people know that Kansas City is a great sports town—go Chiefs! But not everyone knows that KC is where the country’s first successful organized black baseball league got its start. So, it’s appropriate that the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is in Kansas City. It’s a great destination for baseball fans and fans of Black History and Civil Rights history, too.
Empowerment and Entrepreneurial Spirit
African-Americans began to play baseball in the late 1800s on military , college , and company teams and on professional teams with white players, too. Sadly, by 1900, racism and Jim Crow laws forced them out. So, black players formed their own units, “barnstorming” around the country to play anyone who would challenge them.
In 1920, a few Midwestern team owners met at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City and joined to form the Negro National League. Soon, rival leagues formed in eastern and southern states, bringing the skillful and innovative play of black baseball to major urban centers and rural areas in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. The Leagues were known not only for their high level of professional skill but they also became centerpieces for economic development in many black communities.
Telling the Negro Leagues’ Story
Exhibits at the museum introduce teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, and the Chicago American Giants with mementos that include pristine uniforms of the era. Exhibits show what it was like for teams to travel in the days of segregated hotels and restaurants and “The Green Book” that was a directory of places that welcomed people of color.
There’s a life-size baseball diamond inside the museum with bronze statues of the Leagues’ most famous players and I particularly enjoyed watching members of a college baseball team that was in Kansas City for a tournament as they experienced the museum and and the stories they heard.
One of the best stories I encountered at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was that of “clown teams.” Not clowns with red noses but the kind that “clowned around” doing funny tricks such as “shadow ball,” in which the ball was thrown around the field during infield practice at a faster and faster speed. They then threw out the ball and kept doing the same thing without the ball, an idea the Harlem Globetrotters later put into practice.
The most famous of them played for the Indianapolis Clowns. They nicknamed him “Pork Chops” because he ate only pork chops and french fries on road. “Pork Chops” went on to become one of the game’s most celebrated players of any color. He went on to play in Major League baseball, smashed Babe Ruth’s home run record (714), and became the all-time home run leader in the Major Leagues.
“Pork Chops” was Henry “Hank” Aaron.
In addition to Hank Aaron, some of baseball’s greatest played in the Negro Leagues before baseball was integrated. The great Jackie Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs. In 1945, Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Robinson from the Monarchs and he became the first African-American in the modern era to play on a Major League team.
It was an historic event in both baseball and civil rights history. But, it prompted the decline of the Negro Leagues. Other Major League teams recruited African American players and their fans followed. The last Negro Leagues teams folded in the early 1960s, but their legacy lives on at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum “Where History Touches Home.”
If You Go: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is located in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine Neighborhood, which is also the city’s famous jazz district. It’s right next to the American Jazz Museum, which is also a great place to visit. Hungry? Pay a visit toto Arthur Bryant’s for its legendary Kansas City barbecue.
Read Up: You’ll find excellent books on the Negro Leagues and their place in American Civil Rights history as well as biographies of some of the most famous players. Here are a few:
Where to Stay