It may have started with a single tweet, but it ended with a standing ovation that shook the gym at Old Mill School in Mill Valley, California, a small town north of San Francisco.
Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, may have been a long way from home, but standing on that middle school stage in front of 100 or so parents, coaches and kids from the Mill Valley Little League, talking about the greatest African-American baseball players in the history of the sport, he felt right at home.
Players such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell keep Kendrick company on stage as he tells their tales to rapt audiences across the country, imparting their wisdom and reiterating their significance in the history of America’s favorite pastime.
While speaking to a room full of a predominately white audience in one of the most affluent counties in America is unique and actually a first for Kendrick, the message and his goal remain the same.
“We never get tired of going out and talking about this history because in the process you are getting folks to hopefully become more interested in the subject matter and maybe become even more supportive of what we are doing to keep this history alive,” Kendrick said after the presentation. “That’s the thing. If not for the Negro Leagues Museum, this story was going to die. It was going to die when the last Negro Leaguer left the face of this Earth.
"This is a precious piece of baseball and Americana that needs to live — and it’s living through the Negro Leagues Museum.”
A piece of Negro League history took on some life during Mill Valley Little League’s opening day parade this spring, when local radio personality Brian Murphy tweeted a photo of a coach holding a Homestead Grays banner, and the Mill Valley Little League tweeted a photo of a banner being carried in the parade that paid tribute to Jackie Robinson.
Check out the incredible homemade sign for Minors AAA Homestead Grays by Farm Commish Steve Pudelka! #mvllparade pic.twitter.com/0ymxpI2Wd4
— Brian Murphy (@knbrmurph) March 19, 2016
The children carrying the banner were decked out in Kansas City Monarchs gear. That caught Kendrick’s attention and spurred this whirlwind trip to San Francisco, giving him the opportunity to bring to life the legends who wore those very same jerseys many years ago.
For @nlbmprez ...a shout out from Mill Valley (CA) Little League KC Monarchs at today's parade. pic.twitter.com/Z2KSJkdNms
— MillValleyLL (@94941Baseball) March 20, 2016
“The kids are teaching the community,” Kendrick said. “I’m going to guess that the majority of the folks in the audience tonight didn’t know a whole lot about the Negro Leagues prior to tonight. And it all starts with these young people wearing those uniforms and now hopefully creating some curiosity about who the Kansas City Monarchs were or who the Homestead Grays were. So for me to have the opportunity to come out here and share a little bit of the richness of what this history represents is a meaningful opportunity for all of us at the museum.”
Kendrick told stories about players through the history of the Negro Leagues but ended the presentation with Jackie Robinson’s tale of bravery, urging the children in the audience to emulate his spirit and never give up on something because it appears too difficult or insurmountable, especially if you love it. But for Kendrick, the message the Negro Leagues pass on are not about the struggle or what happened to these men, but rather what their response was and how belief in oneself can help a person overcome any obstacle.
“The Negro League players never thought that the Major League players were better than them, but the world thought that,” said Kendrick. “So they wanted to prove to the world that they were as good as anyone. That innate belief in yourself, no doubt about your abilities — that is the fundamental principle of the Negro Leagues. It’s so easy to get lost in the adversity, but the adversity is not the story. What they did to overcome the adversity is the real story. And that to me it basically comes from that self-belief, refusing to accept what others are saying about you and finding a way to move forward and push ahead. That is at the core of what the Negro Leagues represent.”
Explaining the Negro Leagues' need for existence to a child can be difficult because segregation doesn’t make sense in general but makes even less sense to a child. But Kendrick believes that baseball explains things better than he ever could.
“Sports has united us in ways in which nothing else has, and baseball has been at the forefront of that,” Kendrick said. “They know they can play baseball and they play with people who don’t always look like them, so I think that helps make it more understandable for them.”
Kendrick has learned in his 23 years with the museum that children are not the only people who benefit from the Negro Leagues’ rich history. Many professional baseball players from all over come to visit the museum, looking to gain a unique understanding and appreciation for what the Negro Leaguers endured.
Despite the social conditions of the time and the fear that kept baseball a white man’s sport, the men of the Negro Leagues forged a glorious history in the fires of that segregation. And they did it with the only emotion strong enough to endure the flames.
“The one common denominator they share with the Negro Leagues is the love of the game,” said Kendrick. “You will never experience a greater love of the game than you do when you visit Negro Leagues Museum because they had to love it to endure the things they had to endure.
"There were instances where these men would have to sleep on the bus and eat their peanut butter and crackers because the same fans who had just cheered them would not give them a meal or a place to stay. But they never let that kill their love and joy of this game. And that’s the prevailing spirit. And every athlete can relate to that. As a matter of fact, it probably helps them put things into perspective because the things that they complain about pale in comparison.”
One such athlete who makes an annual trip to the museum is Phillies first baseman and Missouri native Ryan Howard.
“Howard would come to the Negro Leagues Museum every year before he went to spring training. He said it prepared him because he understood the things that these men went through paled in comparison to the things that he has to go through,” Kendrick said. “So I think he drew strength from that to allow him to deal with whatever came his way so he would come every year to pay homage.”
Reactions from those who visit the museum can vary, but for Kendrick, the most memorable came from the Wizard himself, legendary St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith.
“He came when we opened the new museum in 1997 and he walked out onto the Field of Legends, where those statues are, and he was moved to tears,” recalled Kendrick. “It was emotional for him because I think he understood that he stood on the shoulders of these giants — that these men built the bridge [and] he crossed over the bridge. And it’s rare that we celebrate the bridge-builder. We always celebrate the people that cross over the bridge. Well, the Negro Leagues Museum celebrates the bridge-builders.”
While the message for the kids of the Mill Valley Little League is one of hope for the future, the men of the Negro Leagues represent a respect for the past for ballplayers everywhere — especially African-American players whose careers are predicated on the Paiges, Gibsons, Bells and Robinsons of an earlier time.
“For the African-American and Hispanic baseball player, the Negro Leagues Museum is Mecca because there is no ‘and, ifs or buts about it’ — you don’t play had it not been for these guys,” pointed out Kendrick. “So if you have any sense of self, you know you owe a great deed of gratitude to those men who played in the Negro Leagues.”
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.