African-Americans have played a critical role in the development of both baseball and America. Their contributions to both go beyond the box scores or the newspaper headlines. Honoring the memory of the Negro Leagues and educating people about the challenges and triumphs of the people involved with this era of our nation’s history is preserved at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM). Founded in 1990, the NLBM was created from the efforts of local historians, business leaders, and former baseball players. The museum has continued to grow since its founding and is a treasure trove of information about the Negro Leagues and its players. Its home in Kansas City, Missouri reflects the importance of the city to Negro League Baseball as it was home to the premier team, the Kansas City Monarchs.
Current NLBM President Bob Kendrick continues to operate the museum as an excellent mixture of remembering the past, while educating the future. He, along with the late Buck O’Neil, have been instrumental in remembering and promoting the Negro Leagues. O’Neil spent much of his life, especially his later years championing the cause of Negro League players. This includes pushing for more Negro League players to be inducted into the National Baseball hall of fame. After far too long the Negro Leagues are now viewed for what they truly were, top level baseball played by men who should have been in the Major Leagues but were denied access based solely upon the color of their skin.
Honoring and remembering the Negro Leagues is a pleasure because of the great accomplishments of the men and women who worked to promoted African-American baseball at a time when society did not view their skill or their humanity as equal. It is also a somewhat solemn task, as we will never know how great these players truly were in comparison to the stars in Major League Baseball due to their being denied the opportunity to compete alongside the other greatest baseball players in the world. Was Josh Gibson the black Babe Ruth, or was Babe Ruth the white Josh Gibson? This debate will never be settled. What sort of statistics would Satchel Paige have put up if he had had the opportunity to start pitching in the Majors when he was 20 years old instead of 41 years old? How would the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the New York Yankees match up during their peaks in the early 1930’s?
Unfortunately we will never know the answers to these questions. We can hypothesize and speculate, but the debates should have been settled on the diamond and not in the theoretical. The shame of the Negro Leagues is not upon the players, executives, or fans of the league, but rather on those who necessitated its creation and operation. The Negro Leagues were a matter of necessity for African-American players. Shut out of Major League Baseball for more than 60 years, they formed teams and leagues to allow them to play the game they love. Arguments can be made that the Negro Leagues were not of the same caliber of play as the Major Leagues, but given the realities for African-Americans in the United States from the 1880’s through the 1960’s, having their own league was a source of pride. Off the field, African-American faced unspeakable racism, discrimination, and violence, but on the field it all faded away. It does not matter if you are white, Hispanic, Asian, or African-American if you can hit and/or throw a baseball better than the other team, you win.
The NLBM is vital to the preservation and celebration of all the greatest that was the Negro Leagues. The executives, players, personalities, and fans were what made the Negro Leagues so successful for so long. While they were dissolved by the 20th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, their impact continues today. The growth and development of African-American baseball is directly related to the success of the Negro Leagues and the players who made the transition from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues. The Negro Leagues served their unfortunate purpose admirably for several decades. Their decline is a sort of end of a golden age of baseball, but it is also the change in attitudes and beliefs in society. No longer will individuals be prevented from reaching the heights of their profession because of their skin color. The time in which racism, discrimination, and violence against African-American is accepted has passed. Society is not perfect, but it has changed for the better. Baseball has led the charge for change. The Negro Leagues were the best alternative for African-American baseball players during a time when they were deemed unequal, and thus barred from playing in the Major Leagues. The NLBM connects this past with the present and educated people about the people who drove for the change in society that finally came, despite seemingly impossible odds. This is the story of African-Americans in the United States and it is vitally important that we preserve this history of the Negro Leagues from both on and off the diamond for future generations.