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MLB The Show 23 gets a boost from Negro Leagues, museum president Bob Kendrick

Museum president lends his voice to hit baseball game in ‘Negro League mode’

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, received an email from a father about the Sony video game MLB The Show 23.

In the text, he said he’d bought the video game, which now features a Negro League mode, for his son. The father then headed to the boy’s bedroom to see if he needed help in navigating it.

As he peeked into the bedroom, he noticed his son sitting on the edge of his bed and listening as Kendrick, one of the voices in the video game, narrated a historical moment.

The father slipped unnoticed from his son’s bedroom.

“He told me he didn’t want to spoil the moment,” Kendrick said. “He left his son with me — so I could share that history with his son.”

Kendrick is big on sharing the history of the Negro Leagues. He’s even bigger on trying to grow interest in baseball — its past and its present. He sees gaming as one way that the MLB might appeal to an audience that no longer adores the sport.

His thoughts are that if the present doesn’t attract Black people and millennials, perhaps MLB The Show 23 can hook them on the past.

Angel Casique Ruiz, 25, has been a fan of MLB The Show since he was 18. Ruiz, who calls himself a “baseball nerd,” plays the video game whenever he can. He liked the older versions; he loves the current one.

The Negro Leagues mode appealed to the nerdy side of him, Ruiz said. When he realized the new version was introducing him to ballplayers he had only a passing knowledge of, he figured he should learn more.

Kendrick’s narration stoked that interest.

“Some of the best storytelling I’ve ever heard,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz grew up in Minneapolis and is a Twins fan. When the Twins were set to start the 2023 season in Kansas City, Missouri, Ruiz jumped into his car to make the seven-hour drive for opening day.

Yes, he intended to go to the Twins-Royals ballgame. He was also going to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

He said he was nervous when he visited the museum, a reddish brick structure in a historic section of Kansas City. When he walked inside, he heard Kendrick’s voice — the same booming voice on the video game that had grabbed Ruiz’s interest.

Kendrick was talking face to face to a small group of visitors. Wearing a Twins cap, Ruiz moved in closer so he could eavesdrop.

“I was starstruck,” he said. “I was mesmerized.”

Marshaling his courage, he approached Kendrick.

“Mr. Kendrick,” Ruiz said, “I just want to introduce myself.”

The two men posed for a photo, and then chatted a while about the baseball museum and the video game that brought Kendrick’s voice to life.

His voice also turned Ruiz, an assistant grocery manager at a Minneapolis supermarket, into a fan of the Negro Leagues and gave him an appreciation of the homage Sony paid to its history.

Game footage from MLB The Show 23.

Business Wire

MLB The Show 23, which was released in late March, tips its cap to ballplayers from the Negro Leagues. In adding eight of them to the game, Sony Interactive Entertainment might have ensured that its legacy series retains its crown as the undisputed king of simulation baseball.

Could its enhancements also rekindle a love for the game among Black baseball fans?

Kendrick thinks so.

For a generation of older Black fans, baseball used to be as beloved as sweet potato pie, he said. They knew the stars; they worshiped them.

But somewhere over the last half-century, they disconnected from baseball.

Who’s to blame for it?

Does the “who” matter?

In its update of MLB The Show, Kendrick hopes Sony intends to rely on those Negro League stars to reconnect with fans of today. The entertainment colossus added a handful of enhancements, though Ruiz said the essence of the video game remains unchanged.

If one of the purposes for Sony, besides turning a profit, was to draw Black fans back to baseball, the enhancement should help.

In what Sony labels a “dedicated single-player story,” its multiplayer video game focuses on the brightest stars from the Black league that was operated parallel to the segregated Major Leagues.

The video game puts a spotlight on eight of them. All were among the best of the Black ballplayers in the first half of the 20th century.

From pitchers Rube Foster and Satchel Paige to infielder Jackie Robinson, whose fame came more from his play in the big leagues than from the Negro Leagues, MLB The Show 23 uses archival footage and colorful illustrations to re-create the excitement that made baseball so much a part of urban life for Black people who lived in cities with ballclubs.

With his voice and knowledge of the subject, Kendrick takes on the task of introducing Negro Leaguers to a contemporary audience. His skill as a storyteller proves he’s up to the challenge.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick attends a news conference to mark the opening of a traveling exhibit titled Shades of Greatness at the McNichols Civic Center Building as part of festivities leading up to the playing of the MLB All-Star Game on July 10, 2021, in Denver.

David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Kendrick brings passion and charisma to his storytelling. His perspective on these underappreciated ballplayers from yesteryear gives a sense they might be his kin.

In a way, they are kinfolk. Kendrick is the relative who inherited the job of keeping their history fresh, poignant and funny, no matter what the platform.

His narration is hard to forget.

A few weeks back, he was in the museum talking to a tour group about Paige. Kendrick asked: “Why did Satchel call one of his pitches the ‘Bee Ball?’ ”

A white child of about 9 or 10 replied, “Mr. Kendrick, because ‘it be’s where he wanted it to be when he wanted it to be there.’ ”

Kendrick laughed.

The boy had played MLB the Show 23, where Kendrick shared this anecdote.

“He remembered it,” Kendrick said of the boy. “And his father said, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s been paying attention.’ ”

So have millennials like Angel Casique Ruiz.

Justice B. Hill grew up and still lives in Cleveland. He practiced journalism for more than 25 years before settling into teaching at Ohio University. He quit May 15, 2019, to write and globetrot. He’s doing both.