WITH Bob Kendrick: The President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Sits Down with Baseball Digest.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum--located just around the corner from the old Paseo YMCA in Kansas City's historic 18th & Vine District--will launch a year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues on February 13. The former Paseo YMCA is set to become the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center, and that's where the first official centennial event will take place.
Bob Kendrick was appointed to his current post in 2011 after serving as a member of the organization's board of directors (1993-98) and then leading its marketing efforts (1998-2009). Since returning to the NLBM in 2011, he has orchestrated a turnaround that has seen the museum regain its vitality and financial stability. Kendrick has also taken the baton from the late O'Neil, a former Kansas City Monarch and local legend, to become Negro Leagues Baseball's greatest ambassador.
Baseball Digest: How would you frame the importance of the 100th anniversary celebration that will take place in 2020?
Bob Kendrick: We've been eyeing this date for the past several years because we knew it would create a national platform to trumpet the establishment of the Negro Leagues. Naturally, we believe it's one of the most important occurrences in the history of this country, and it's our job to help others understand why it's so important. In addition to the series of events that we're planning here in Kansas City throughout the year, we want to empower other communities around the country to engage in celebratory events, and also identify where there might be artifacts that can come home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. We're also leveraging this 100th anniversary to try and establish a national day of recognition for the Negro Leagues and to help set the museum up for long-term sustainability.
BD: Can you talk about the late Buck O'Neil, the former Negro Leagues player and longtime Kansas City resident, and what he's meant to the museum?
Kendrick: I say this with no disrespect to anyone else who had a hand in building this great museum, but, in New York, they had "The House That Ruth Built." In Kansas City, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is "The House That Buck Built." There would not be a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum had it not been for the tireless efforts of John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil. He gave his all, as a volunteer, to breathe life into this museum and help sustain it. His passion was not wanting those who played in the Negro Leagues to be forgotten. The story is too powerful. It's too compelling. It's too important to die when that last Negro Leaguer leaves the face of this earth. He had that foresight. Buck wanted to build this museum so their stories would live on long after they were all gone. He was the driving force for this museum. He was instrumental in keeping the legacy of the Negro Leagues alive. He was the guy who gallivanted all over this country preaching the gospel of the Negro Leagues and the virtues of this museum to anyone and everyone who would listen. His spirit still looms large over this museum, even in death, and always will.
BD: What are the most important lessons people learn when they visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum?
Kendrick: People come to the museum expecting to meet some great baseball players, and they don't leave disappointed. The thing that surprises them is they come away from this experience with a deeper appreciation of how great this country really is. The story of the Negro Leagues could only happen in America. Yes, it's anchored against the backdrop of the ugliness of segregation, but that's not the story. The story is what those players were able to do in the face of that adversity. Their ability to rise above the adversity, that's the real story, and that story comes across in triumphant fashion. A lot of people think that we're going to introduce them to a sad story because it's against the backdrop of segregation. But it's not sad, and we don't treat it as such. We treat it as a celebration. It's a celebration of the power of the human spirit to persevere and prevail. People walk away literally cheering the American spirit that's inside the story of these wonderful athletes who just wanted to play ball.
BD: How has the museum grown under your leadership?
Kendrick: When I became president eight years ago, it was public record that the museum was in deep trouble. It had gone through a murky transition after the death of Buck O'Neil (in 2006). I left the organization in 2010, but came back in 2011 to see if there was anything that we could do to get this museum--and keep this museum--healthy and whole. I had a great group of people around me to try and orchestrate a significant turnaround, and I'm very proud of the fact that we were able to do that. The museum is stable. It's healthy. It's whole. Now we can focus strategically on its long-term sustainability. What gets lost in the story of the Negro Leagues is that it was such a thriving business enterprise. We try to channel that same spirit with the way we go about our business here, and the turnaround has been as rewarding and gratifying as I ever could have imagined.
BD: Who are some of the high-profile celebrities that you've personally taken on tours of the museum?
Kendrick: Sometimes I still pinch myself, because I'm a kid from a little town in Georgia. I'm from Crawfordville, Ga., which is about as big as this museum. On any given day, there may be more people in this museum than there are in Crawfordville. I've had a chance to walk around this museum with President George W. Bush, General Colin Powell, First Lady Michelle Obama and a plethora of great athletes, entertainers and dignitaries. However, numero uno on my list was in 1999 when we brought Henry Aaron here and I got to walk my childhood idol through this museum.
BD: What's your recollection of that first encounter with Hank Aaron?
Kendrick: You know, I've never been star struck around anyone--except Henry Aaron. Even with as much time as we've now spent together through the years, I'm still star struck by him. Every time I'm around him I'm reduced to that 12-year-old boy that circled the bases in his mother's living room as Henry Aaron was circling the bases at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium after he hit home run No. 715 back in 1974. That day with him in 1999 will forever be the most memorable tour that I've ever given. After walking Henry Aaron through the museum, we were having lunch and eating Gates barbecue together. It doesn't get any better than that. My wife will tell you that I was a nervous wreck that morning. I was laying out clothes, one outfit after another. She was looking at me like, "What's wrong with you?" And I'm saying, "This is Henry Aaron. Everything has to be perfect."
BD: Do current major-league players visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum when they come through Kansas City to play the Royals?
Kendrick: Yes, more and more, and that absolutely warms my heart. There was a time when it used to be me lobbying the visiting teams to come down. Now they call on their own and want to visit. To see more and more of these young athletes come here and delve into the story of the Negro Leagues is exciting. No other sport holds onto its history as well as baseball does, and the Negro Leagues are a very important part of that history.
BD: Do you think visiting the museum causes current big leaguers to appreciate the opportunity they have to play baseball for a living a little bit more?
Kendrick: Yes, I think so. The current players gain an appreciation of what the Negro Leagues athletes endured, and how good they were under tremendous social pressure. What I share with them is that none of us will ever see a greater example of love of the game than we do when we walk through this museum--because they had to love it in order to endure the things they did. The Negro Leagues players could have easily said, "Forget it." They could ride into a town and fill up the ballpark, yet not be able to get a meal or a place to stay from the same people who had just cheered them when they were out on the field. They would have to sleep on the bus and eat peanut butter and crackers, but they never allowed that to kill their love for the game. When current players think about that, all of sudden that late-night charter flight doesn't seem so bad.
BD: If someone has never been to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum before, what do you recommend they check out the first time they walk through your doors?
Kendrick: The thing that grabs people is the Field of Legends, where the life-sized bronze statues of the great Negro Leagues players are on display. You can feel the spirit of those statues when you walk out there. I've been here so many years now, and I still feel it when I walk out there. Sometimes you wonder if, after the dust settles and everyone goes home, those legendary players break out the ball and start throwing it around the horn.
BD: How many players from the Negro Leagues are still alive?
Kendrick: There aren't very many left and the ones who are left are the ones that we call young Negro Leaguers. They're the ones who played at the tail end of the Negro Leagues. The guys who played in the 1930s and 1940s are virtually all gone. Overall, we estimate there are a little over 100 guys still with us--maybe 120 or so--and the ones that are still able to travel have some involvement with us.
BD: What Negro Leagues star or pioneer do you wish you could sit down and have a conversation with?
Kendrick: The first guy on my list would be Satchel Paige. Satchel died in 1982, and he's one guy who I absolutely regret not getting to meet, although I feel like I knew him because of all the great stories that Buck O'Neil and others told about him. But I've been very fortunate. I got to meet a number of the legendary players--Monte Irvin, Minnie Minoso, Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays--contemporaries that went on to play in the major leagues. I've had an opportunity to spend time with all of them, and that's been amazing. I've drawn something valuable from each and every one of those encounters.
BD: The last four digits of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's phone number are 1-9-2-0, which was the year the Negro Leagues were established. Was that a marketing ploy or a coincidence?
Kendrick: I would love to think that someone here had the foresight to do that. But, as I've been told, back in 1990 when they set up the phones, no one here asked for that number. So, it was a coincidence, but a great coincidence. It was perfect.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2020|
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