KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — When it was founded in a one-room office nearly three decades ago, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum set out to preserve an important yet quickly fading era of America’s pastime.
The days of Pop Lloyd and Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.
Its mission has evolved and expanded over the years to where it serves not only as a caretaker of the past but a bridge to the future. There is the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, which opened earlier this year in the old Paseo YMCA, and a $19 million urban youth academy in development nearby that aims to attract more kids to the game.
All those endeavors cost money, of course, and that’s where Major League Baseball and its players’ union have stepped in. They joined Wednesday to present a $1 million grant to the museum to help with operating costs, expansion plans and educational opportunities.
“Because of the sacrifices and triumphs of the men and women of the Negro Leagues, the museum is an inspirational experience for fans of any age,” Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “We appreciate the museum’s contributions to baseball and the role it can play in encouraging young people.”
Blacks have played professional baseball since the late 1800s, often as part of military or college teams. There were few color barriers back then, only a profound love of the game.
But as racism grew in the early 1900s, and Jim Crow laws began an age of segregation, black players found it increasingly difficult to gain acceptance in the game. So in 1920, former player Rube Foster held a meeting at the Paseo YUMC to set rules for the Negro National League, and soon rival leagues were springing up across the country.
Games often played in major urban centers became events, drawing thousands of fans to see a style of play that was every bit as entertaining as the games played by their white counterparts.
The Negro Leagues had their share of stars, too. Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson became household names, while future Hall of Famers such as Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson — who broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 — got their start on teams such as the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Kansas City Monarchs.
“The Negro Leagues played an important role in not only changing the game but America, too,” said the museum’s president, Bob Kendrick, who was close friends with several former players.
The integration of baseball in the 1940s and ’50s led to the decline of the Negro Leagues, and the last teams folded in the early 1960s. By the late 1980s, the era was largely forgotten, glossed over by historians eager to rewrite baseball’s often-checkered past.
With that in mind, a group of former players led by Monarchs star Buck O’Neil decided to found a museum to preserve their history. It has since grown into a 10,000-square-foot destination in the historic 18th and Vine District, adjacent to the American Jazz Museum, and draws thousands of visitors every year.
Highlights include hundreds of photographs, a replica field with 12 bronze sculptures, a massive collection of baseball artifacts and a series of multimedia computer stations.
Current big leaguers often make a point of dropping in when their teams are in town to play the Royals. Earlier this year, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones — who had been subject to racial taunts in a game at Fenway Park — toured the museum and made a $20,000 donation.
Longtime player Tony Clark, the first black executive director of the players’ union, said the latest grant will help ensure the Negro Leagues and their players are never forgotten.
“Today’s players are committed to providing opportunities for underserved populations to play baseball,” Clark said, “and we all believe the Negro Leagues’ storied history can play an important role in our game’s future by inspiring minority youth to play the sport we all love.”