A young couple and their four sons were gazing through a window to the past. Behind the glass was a simple bedroom, circa 1930. The boys, none older than five, were wide-eyed with wonder. "That's how Grandmom used to live," said their mother. To the left was a replica of a barbershop, to the right a model of a lavish hotel lobby with a jukebox that emitted soothing jazz riffs. Nothing seemed out of place until you noticed the WHITES ONLY sign down the hall, which signaled the boundary of the hotel for blacks.
This is what segregation looked like. "A part of me is sad to see it," said the boys' mother, Dana Washington. "I think about my sons and the things we take for granted, and I get emotional, because I never want to forget what our people went through. It's sad, but uplifting."
The new Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, in Kansas City, is testimony to the will and spirit of athletes whose perceived sin was the color of their skin. The museum originally opened in July 1994, but this fall it moved from a cramped, 2,500-square-foot space to a larger setting in the historical 18th and Vine District, the heart of African-American life in Kansas City between the 1890s and 1960s. In the neighborhood's heyday baseball and jazz went hand-in-hand, and strollers might run into Satchel Paige or Satchmo Armstrong. In 1920 Rube Foster founded the Negro National League here, at the Paseo YMCA. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, two blocks away, occupies 10,000 square feet on one floor of a building that also houses The Kansas City Jazz Museum.
Visitors quickly get a sense of what it was like to be a Negro leagues player. Inside the entrance there's a scale-model baseball field with life-sized bronze statues of players. A chicken-wire backstop keeps you from getting through. It's a not-so-subtle device to demonstrate the racial separation in that era. You're then ushered to a theater for a 15-minute film on the history of black baseball. At the end of the film, the passage from Ecclesiasticus 2:1-2—MY SON, IF YOU ASPIRE TO BE A SERVANT OF THE LORD, PRE-PARE YOURSELF FOR TESTING. SET A STRAIGHT COURSE AND KEEP TO IT, AND DO NOT BE DISMAYED IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY—is highlighted on a wall. As you move along, murals depict blacks playing baseball with whites in the days following the Civil War. You learn that blacks played night baseball five years before night games began in the major leagues and that Bingo Long-type barnstorming by African-American teams was an exception rather than the rule. "The Kansas City Monarchs?" one young visitor asked as he eyed their pennant, unaware of the team's former prominence. "Yeah," his friend answered. "They were better then than the Royals are now."
There are replica jerseys and hats, and replica lockers belonging to the 12 men who are enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., for their play in the Negro leagues. The centerpiece of the museum, however, is the field. After a visitor walks through the exhibits, it's 1947, and he has earned the right to take the field with a pantheon of baseball greats. At last there's an opening in the fence, and you can walk onto the field and identify the statues.
That's Josh Gibson crouched behind home plate, while Martin Dihigo, the lone player in three national baseball halls of fame (in Mexico, Cuba and the U.S.), is in the batter's box, ready to swing at a Satchel Paige fastball. Cool Papa Bell is in left, and Judy Johnson is ready to turn two at shortstop. Rube Foster looks on approvingly from beyond the rightfield fence as visitors gaze into the lifelike faces. Beside most players is an interactive kiosk with games and biographical information.
"Ain't it beautiful?" asked Carl Long, 62, a former Birmingham Black Barons outfielder who made the trip from Kinston, N.C, for the museum's grand opening on Nov. 1. "Man, it's gorgeous. It's about time, too. Most of the old-timers are dropping like flies." Indeed, former Indianapolis Clowns catcher Sam Hairston (who was the first African-American to play for the Chicago White Sox) and Baltimore Elite Giants catcher Henry Frazier Robinson had died in the previous three weeks, and Buck Leonard (a first baseman who played for the Homestead Grays) would pass away almost four weeks later.
Lefty LaMarque, 76, a pitcher with the Monarchs in the '40s, said he never thought he would see the day when his generation would be honored. "It's time for us to be recognized," he said. "I feel outta this world. I love baseball. I hope the kids today learn our history. Maybe they can get inspired. If they can see what's possible, who knows?"
"We had great lives," said Buck O'Neil, the former Monarchs first baseman and manager who has become an ambassador for the Negro leagues and is the museum's chairman. "We started dreaming about this a long time ago. This is what Martin [Luther King Jr.] was talking about: black men, white men, Indian men, Spanish men, all together in one room. This is the dream he was talking about. This is my dream come true."
O'Neil wasn't looking at the past. He was talking about the present.