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Negro Leagues Baseball Museum looks to capitalize on popularity of Black baseball

President Bob Kendrick kicks off campaign to raise $30 million for relocation and larger endowment

Bob Kendrick holds in his hands the narrative of “Black baseball,” and he’s not about to let it slip through his grasp.

As president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, Kendrick has had grand plans for the narrative and for the museum, none grander, however, than the plan he announced Tuesday.

Kendrick, 61, kicked off a campaign to raise more than $30 million to establish a larger endowment and relocate the museum to a larger venue next door to the Paseo YMCA at 1814 Paseo Blvd., where Rube Foster founded the Negro Leagues in 1920.

“I’ve been kinda sitting on this for a while,” Kendrick said. “I don’t think the museum’s going to get any hotter than it is right now, so we’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot.”

How hot is Black baseball?

Not since Buck O’Neil, the iconic Hall of Famer who joined baseball historian Larry Lester and a handful of others in launching the museum in 1990, became a media darling after he was featured in Ken Burns’ Emmy-winning documentary Baseball in 1994 has the museum drawn this kind of attention.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, is dedicated to preserving the history of African American baseball, when Black players were prohibited from joining major league teams.

Mark Taylor/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Kendrick said the museum, or as he likes to refer to it as, “The House that Buck Built,” got a significant boost in 2020 when the MLB decided it would accept as valid the statistical records of more than 3,400 ballplayers who played in Black leagues because racism barred them from MLB.

The good news has since kept rolling in.

In March, Sony included a Negro Leagues mode in its video game MLB the Show 23, shining a spotlight on some of the best ballplayers in the history of the national pastime. Their inclusion in the popular video game has stoked interest in O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, John Donaldson and other greats from Black baseball.

As its mission, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which shares space with the American Jazz Museum, tells the oft-forgotten stories of these Black men who played in leagues where only the ball was white.

Theirs is a rich story to tell, said Raymond Doswell, who left the museum as its curator in mid-January to run Greenwood Rising, the museum dedicated to the history of the Greenwood District where up to 300 Black people were killed by a white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.

Doswell played a part in crafting a future for the museum.

“You have limits when you share a building,” he said. “So, in essence, in consolidating everything, if there was room to do it and resources to do so, it made a lot of sense.

“In the current building, we were locked in — in terms of growth.”

Kendrick echoed Doswell’s point. He knew, however, if the fires were to remain white-hot, he needed to think big, to think bold.

And he did.

Since he couldn’t build atop the current building or expand it outward, he had to build elsewhere. Next to the historic YMCA was as good a place as he could ask for.

Situated there, the new building can serve as a gateway into the 18th & Vine District, once the hub of Black cultural life in Kansas City. On the new site, the museum will feature interactive exhibitions similar to what is seen in video games.

The new building, of course, will include the replica diamond called “Field of Legends,” the popular, life-size statues of the greatest-of-the-great Negro Leaguers.

“People would kill me if I didn’t take it,” Kendrick said.

His plans to move the museum, its artwork and its exhibits will cost $25 million of the $30 million sought in the fundraising campaign.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president and historian Bob Kendrick attends the SiriusXM Black Diamonds podcast at the SiriusXM Studios on July 18, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SiriusXM

In announcing the relocation, Kendrick disclosed a contribution of a $1 million grant from Bank of America in Kansas City, a financial powerhouse locally and globally.

Matthew J. Linski, president of Bank of America Kansas City, wanted the bank to play a significant role in helping the museum grow in the 18th & Vine District. The bank put its money behind the relocation, and Linski said its brand might draw other businesses in the market to the project.

“I’ve had outreach and CEOs from other businesses I work with that were interested,” he said. “Putting our weight behind it, not even our money, is an amplifier for Bob locally where businesses we work with take notice.”

Kendrick sees those partnerships as important to the success of the project. He also sees a role for the MLB to play. He’s looking for the league and team owners to pitch in.

Although he praised MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision to validate Negro Leagues statistics, Kendrick called that decision just a starting point for what the league needs to do to right its past.

“I told the commissioner and his people, ‘Look, man, you can’t wash your hands of your sins and then walk away from it,’ ” Kendrick said. “That’s disingenuous.”

He said he’ll ask Manfred to carry a big load in the fundraising campaign, which might also include encouraging current (and retired) major league ballplayers to chip in and to visit the museum when they come to the Kansas City to play the Royals.

Kendrick, who resolved to rescue the museum from debt when he became president in 2011, said he’s not asking Manfred and baseball to do anything more than what they do for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s not looking for a partner to control the narrative of Black baseball, no more than Cooperstown, New York, is for baseball broadly.

“I’m glad they’re all-in on the Hall of Fame — that honor and what it means,” said Kendrick, who has the museum on sound financial footing. “But it shouldn’t mean anymore to them than what the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum does.”

Right now, he’s aiming to complete the relocation in 2026, the same year that Kansas City will host some of the World Cup games in soccer.

“When the world comes to Kansas City,” Kendrick said, “I want there to be a new Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to go along with the Buck O’Neil Bridge so some of the players can walk across it to see the new museum.”

Doswell shared Kendrick’s vision of the future, which the Bank of America grant will help make happen.

“I think this is a good day for the museum,” Doswell said.

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.