Many people think the Negro Leagues as a sad, somber part of America’s legacy of racial division. In many ways it is, says Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro League Baseball Museum. But on the 100th anniversary of its founding, he stresses that it is moreover a triumphant story about what came out of segregation, and the result was a much richer, stronger country.
It was the Negro Leagues that introduced baseball to Japan and Latin America when black players played in exhibition matches at those places (they went on a goodwill tour to Japan in 1927, years before Babe Ruth and others came, winning the hearts of locals). And, Kendrick says, it was the Negro League that kickstarted the Civil Rights Movement by its players breaking the baseball color barrier of the Major Leagues with Jackie Robinson in 1947. This was years before the Birmingham Bus Boycott (1956) or the Freedom Riders (1961).
Today I’m speaking with Kendrick about the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, which were formed on February 13, 1920, in Kansas City, Missouri. For the next several decades, black players competed on Negro League teams every bit as competent as their white counterparts (Hank Aaron got his start in the Negro Leagues; Joe DiMaggio called Satchel Paige “the best and fastest pitcher I have ever faced.”)
We discuss legends of the sport, such as Buck O’Neil, a first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs, who became the first black scout for Major League Baseball and was a major player in establishing the museum itself (he was also a fixture on Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball). But most of all, we look into how this baseball league was a fundamental part of the civil rights struggle.
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