Knowledge Center

Return to Knowledge Center

Banking on KC – Bob Kendrick of The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

publication image

Click here to listen now, or read the transcript below:

 

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. On this episode, we welcome Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Welcome, Bob.

Bob Kendrick:

Kelly, thanks so much for having me on the show. It's an absolute pleasure.

Kelly Scanlon:

I'm so excited to get to interview you. Number one, because I'm a huge baseball fan. It's my favorite sport. But number two, this is such a big year for you and the museum. You're celebrating 30 years for the museum and 100 years for Negro Leagues Baseball. Right?

Bob Kendrick:

Yeah. Two milestone celebrations for us, as you referenced, our 100th year anniversary of the birth of the Negro Leagues, formed right here in Kansas City in 1920, as a matter of fact, Kelly, just around the corner from where the museum currently operates the Paseo YMCA, is where these leagues were established 100 years ago, and 30 years for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, established in a tiny one room office here at historic 18th and Vine inside the Lincoln Building in 1990, when guys like the late, great Buck O'Neil and other former Negro Leaguers, who were still with us, literally took turns paying the monthly rent to keep that little office open, and of course with it, our hopes and dreams of one day building a facility that would pay rightful tribute to one of the greatest chapters, not in baseball history, but in American history. And that's the rich and compelling story of the Negro Leagues. Here we are now, 30 years later, recognized as America's National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as designated so by the United States Congress in 2006.

Kelly Scanlon:

Absolutely incredible. Congratulations on that. Tell me about the inspiration behind the museum.

Bob Kendrick:

Well, it was the idea of the late, great Horace Peterson, who ran the Black Archives of Mid American. And Horace approached Buck O'Neil, who was here in Kansas City, legendary Negro Leaguer in his own right, and Buck still resided here in Kansas City. And Horace approached Buck about an idea at that time, Kelly, to do a Negro Leagues Hall of Fame. And Buck O'Neil said, "No." Horace said, "Well, what would you suggest?" Buck says, "A Negro Leagues Baseball Museum." His rationale was that there had been enough separation in our sport. The players who were good enough should be recognized at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, that it was more important for us to build a museum that would preserve, celebrate, educate, than it would be to create a pseudo hall of fame, when you knew that I had a finite number of people that you could induct into your hall of fame. And that's when we embarked on this journey to build a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum literally a block and a half from where the Negro Leagues were formed in 1920.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have a slogan on your website that says, "Where history touches home." And I love that because, first of all, there's a baseball reference in it, but there's also a larger meaning. Tell us about that.

Bob Kendrick:

Yeah. I think for me it was a slogan that I kind of dreamed up. And I thought it beautifully conveyed the essence of what the Negro Leagues represented both on and off the field. Yeah, this is an incredible story that's dedicated to some courageous athletes who forged a glorious history in the midst of an inglorious time in American history. And that was fueled by the passion and love of the game of baseball. But because of that love and passion and dedication and commitment that they had for our sport, it not only changed the game, it changed our country for the better. And that's the story that had escaped the pages of American history books. And so countless generations of us have gone through our own formal educations without knowing one of the most significant chapters, not in baseball history, but in American history, and that's that compelling story of the Negro Leagues. And I think that's what this symbolizes, that this story is so much bigger than the game of baseball. Yet, Kelly, it's still just a tiny part of the great story of the game of baseball.

Kelly Scanlon:

So talk to us about the history of Negro Leagues Baseball and how it is connected to issues relating to race and diversity in America, then, as you've already talked a little bit about, and now, present day.

Bob Kendrick:

Well, I find it fascinating because obviously, the emergence of these leagues transpired because African American and Hispanic players were shunned from Major League Baseball because of the color of their skin, so they formed their own league, so that they would have an opportunity to showcase their world class baseball ability. Well, the progressive nature of these leagues, which opened their door to anyone who could play, any player, the Hispanic ball players were playing in the Negro Leagues. There were a handful of white ball players playing in the Negro Leagues. Their mantra was simply: Can you play? And if you can play, you can play. And then this league would open its doors to women to have a role in our game. There were three pioneering women who competed with and against the men in the 1950s in the Negro Leagues, Toni Stone, Connie Morgan, and Mamie Peanut Johnson, pioneers, women who competed with and against the men.

Bob Kendrick:

And so Toni Stone would become the first female of professional baseball. She was followed by Mamie Johnson, and then of course, Connie Morgan. There were female leaders in the Negro Leagues, executives, most formidably, Effa Manley, the first woman to own and operate a professional baseball team. She and her husband, Abe Manley, owned the Newark Eagles. But it was Mrs. Manley to ran the day to day operations of the baseball team. And Kelly, she knew the business of baseball as well as any man. Had tremendous talent play for her. My dear friend, the late, great Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, who could break the color barrier in the American League after Jackie Robinson, Leon Day, Willy Wells. These are all Hall of Famers.

Bob Kendrick:

Don Newcombe, who should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, all played for Effa Manley's Newark Eagles. She's the first woman to be nominated and inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. And so it strikes me that a league born out of segregation would become the driving force for social change in this country. And a league born out of exclusion would become perhaps one of this nation's most inclusive entities. Again, they didn't care what color you were. And they didn't care what gender you were. Can you play? Do you have something to offer?

Bob Kendrick:

And then, Kelly, when I look a little bit deeper at this story, particularly as we look at civil rights and equality and social justice, this is the league that gave us Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson was hand picked from the great Kansas City Monarchs to become baseball's chosen one. And I find it interesting, Kelly, that a lot of people think that Jackie just walked out of nowhere and started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But his real rookie season was here in Kansas City in 1945. And I tell people all the time, before he was number 42, he was number five for our Kansas City Monarchs.

Bob Kendrick:

And there is no question that Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier wasn't just a part of the civil rights movement, it marked the beginning of the civil rights movement in this country. This is 1947. This is well before those more noted civil rights occurrences. So this is before Brown versus the board of education. This is before Rosa Parks refusal to move to the back of the bus. As the late, great Buck O'Neil would so eloquently say, "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia when Jackie signed his contract to play in the Dodgers organization." Our very own President Truman would not integrate the armed forces until a year after Jackie. So for all intents and purposes, this is what started the ball of social progress rolling in our country.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, and as you have said before, not today, but you have said before, it was the beginning because it took until 1960 I believe, for baseball, Major League Baseball to be fully integrated. So Jackie Robinson was the start, but that wasn't the end of it. There were many more years.

Bob Kendrick:

Yeah, no. This was a slow, meticulous process. And so baseball would complete the integration cycle in 1959 with Boston becoming the last team to sign a black player. Well, what happens? By 1960, the Negro Leagues ceased operations because as you can well imagine, Kelly, by then, the best young black stars had moved into the Major Leagues, or into the Major Leagues' Minor League system, and there was no replenishing system. So the Negro Leagues would then go ahead and fade off into the sunset. It's bittersweet from that standpoint that what was good morally, what was good socially, basically put the Negro Leagues themselves out of business.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are some of the things that visitors will find there? What kind of an experience can a visitor to the museum expect?

Bob Kendrick:

Well, the first thing I'll say is what they won't get. And for those who think that they're going to come here and be introduced to a sad, somber story, you've got the wrong place. Now we treat this as just what it is, a celebration. Now granted, Kelly, it is a celebration of the power of the human spirit to persevere and prevail. But there's nothing sad about this story, even though we know that this story is set against the backdrop of American segregation, a horrible and shameful chapter in this country's history. But the real story here is out of segregation rose this wonderful story of triumph and conquest. And it's all based on one small, simple principle. You won't let me play with you in the Major Leagues, then I'll just create a league of my own. And this museum brings that story to light. And so it's told through a wonderful collection of photographs, artifacts, great descriptive pieces, videos, and some interactivity. And then of course, and let me preface this by saying I'm biased, but I think our field of-

Kelly Scanlon:

You are the president.

Bob Kendrick:

I think our Field of Legends here at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is one of the most amazing and compelling displays in any museum, anywhere in the world. The field of course features 10 life size bronze sculptures of Negro League greats, who are cast in position as if they were playing a game. And everything here at the Negro Leagues Museum is built around that baseball diamond. So when you walk into the museum, you can see the field, but you can't get to it. And so we purposely segregate our visitors from the centerpiece of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum because we wanted, particularly our young audience, to at least remotely experience what segregation was like. So in the case of these great athletes, they knew full well that they were good enough to play in the Major Leagues, so close to it, yet so far from it.

Bob Kendrick:

So from most vantage points in the museum, you can see the field, but you can't get to it. And so by the time you bear witness to everything that they had to endure to play baseball in this country, then the very last thing that happens here is now you can take the field. And in many respects, you now have earned that right. You are deemed worthy to walk out on the field, Kelly, with 10 of the baddest brothers to ever play this game.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are some of the favorite items that are there? What are some of your favorites?

Bob Kendrick:

Oh, there are so many. We've been so fortunate because I tell people all the time, I wish this museum had started 30 years before we did because our collection would've been even more expansive.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sure, yeah.

Bob Kendrick:

But I'll say that 95% of the items that we have on display at the museum came from the players and/or the players' families. It's only been over the last decade or so that we've actively started pursuing collection. Matter of fact, we've become our own worst enemy. The more we're popularizing the story, we're driving up the price of the artifacts, and it makes it difficult for us to compete to go get them. But there are so many very interesting pieces. One of my favorite pieces at the museum is actually a relatively nondescript photograph. But it's the photograph of a young man standing at the train station in Mobile, Alabama. He's 18 years old, and all he has is a duffel bag. And he told me, in this duffel bag, he says, "I may have had two changes of clothes, $1.50 in my pocket, and a ham sandwich that my mama had made me." The year was 1952, and this very frail, almost ... I mean, there's a look on his face like, "I don't know what I'm about to go get myself into." That kid was 18 year old Henry Aaron, the great Hank Aaron.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, my.

Bob Kendrick:

And he's standing there at the train station about to go join the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952. And when he joined the Clowns, he was literally a skinny, cross handed hitting infielder. So in the case of Henry Aaron, he was a right hand hitter, who was hitting with this left hand on top. That is an unorthodox. The fear is that you would break your wrist hitting in that manner. Well, Henry Aaron, Kelly, is knocking the cover off the baseball in a highly unorthodox fashion. When he gets to the clowns, they put the right hand on top, and the rest, as they say, is history. He was shortly after discovered by the Boston Braves, who would become the Milwaukee Braves, who of course would become the Atlanta Braves. Henry Aaron will go down in this sport, in the echelons of this sport, as one of its all time greatest players. But his illustrious professional career began in 1952 with the Indianapolis Clowns.

Bob Kendrick:

And for so many of our visitors, that is kind of that ah-ha moment in the museum because despite what I may have shared about some of these other legendary Negro Leaguers who were prior to Henry Aaron, you could kind of see people are respectful, and they probably were like, "Well, they were good. But I don't know if they were as good as Bob is claiming they were." And then you walk up on this young, skinny kid from Mobile, Alabama, who maybe weight 150 pounds at that time. But you know everything that he accomplished in the Major League. And in some ways, he almost validates the other guys that I'd been talking about. And that to me, and again, again, let me admit my bias-ness here, Henry is my all time favorite baseball player. He is still my childhood idol as a kid growing up in Georgia. But for me, it sets the tenet of the kind of star power that was there in the Negro Leagues.

Bob Kendrick:

And there are some other amazing artifacts. One of the ones that jumps out at our guests is the Geddy Lee collection. And I don't know if you're familiar with the name Geddy Lee.

Kelly Scanlon:

No, no.

Bob Kendrick:

Geddy Lee is the lead singer and bass guitarist for the Hall of Fame, Canadian rock group, Rush.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, my.

Bob Kendrick:

Yes. He is a huge baseball fan. As a matter of fact, during normal circumstances, you could see Geddy Lee still keeping score behind home plate at Toronto Bluejay games. Well, unbeknownst to us, he's a huge sports memorabilia collector. And so Rush was playing a concert several years ago here in Kansas City. And Geddy had a friend that lived here, sad to say he passed away a couple years ago. But he says, "I'm going to take you by to see the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum." Well, Kelly, like most who come here, Geddy Lee fell in love with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Bob Kendrick:

After leaving, an incredible collection of single sign autographed Negro Leagues player baseballs, come up at an auction. Well, he decided that he would bid on them with the intent of donating them back to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum if he won the bid. Well, as fate would have it, he wins the bid. His office calls and says, "Geddy has a few baseballs he'd like to donate to the museum. Would you all like to have them?" Well, naturally, we say yes. But to be honest, we're thinking maybe three or four that he might've picked up somewhere.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right. Right.

Bob Kendrick:

Kelly, it turned out to be 200.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, my goodness.

Bob Kendrick:

Yes. He has since donated an additional lot of 200, now giving the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum one of the largest collection of single sign Negro Leagues player autographed baseballs anywhere in the world, and it's all due to the benevolence of one Geddy Lee, a white Canadian rocker. Who knew? So needless to say, that one always jumps out at our guests.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. I can see why. I mean, just such incredible things there. I have to ask you. With everything that you have housed there, and because it is just so integral to, as you say, the history of America, do you ever do any kind of work with the Smithsonian?

Bob Kendrick:

Well, we've done some things. And matter of fact, we were kind of a founding partner of the National African American Museum. They came here. Dr. Lonnie Bunch, who now has the Smithsonian, of course, they came here to see how we treated this story, to kind of help fuel what they were going to do from a content standpoint at the National African American Museum, which is something that we are tremendously proud of, that relationship. And looking to even further grow that relationship, that's our quest. That's our goal. We, as a national museum, we want to be viewed in the same light as the Smithsonian. Now granted, we're not nearly the size and scope of those well funded, significant, national museums. But I tell you what, we couldn't be more prouder of what we've done with building this museum, and then building it in area that had been left abandoned.

Bob Kendrick:

Historic 18th and Vine had died. And it was really because of this museum deciding to anchor here in 1990 that we see the resurrection of what was once one of this nation's most prominent African American communities. 18th and Vine was as recognized street cross section, Kelly, as you will encounter anywhere in this country because you had that intrinsic mixture of jazz and baseball radiating from this one street corner.

Kelly Scanlon:

You started as the president in 2011. But that wasn't your first time working with the museum. So tell us a little bit about how you got involved, and also some of the highlights during your time at the museum. What personally have been milestones for you and the museum during that time?

Bob Kendrick:

I tell you, it's been an interesting journey for me because I started at this great museum, Kelly, as a volunteer in 1993. Who knew? Yeah. Who knew?

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Bob Kendrick:

Yeah, you don't forecast going from being a volunteer to trying to lead an organization of this magnitude. But as I tell people all the time, I fell in love with this story and I fell in love with the athletes who made this story. And I considered myself to be a baseball fan. And here was this entire chapter of baseball in American history that I really did not know very much about. I knew the names Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson because those names, Kelly, transcended mainstream. Most baseball fans have at least heard of those names. Even if you don't know how great they were, you've heard those names before. But I had no idea about the breadth, the depth, the scope, the magnitude that this history represented both on and off the field. And as I became introduced to it at a greater level, I just became almost engrossed in it. I wanted to learn as much as I could.

Bob Kendrick:

And Kelly, I didn't want to keep it to myself. I wanted everybody else to feel the same way I felt about it. And then I started to meet the players, and particularly my friend, the late, great John Buck O'Neil. And I tell everyone, once you're bitten by the Buck bug, it's a wrap. You just wanted to be on his team, the passion, the charisma, the dedication that he had for wanting to build a museum so that they wouldn't be forgotten. There I was, kind of swept away by the magnitude of this man. And I just wanted to be on Buck's team.

Bob Kendrick:

It's been an amazing journey for me. And in 1998, I became the museum's first full-time director of marketing, served in that capacity for 12 years, and then left in 2010 briefly. 13 months later, I came back as president of this great museum, so I'm in my ninth year as president. And there've been many milestones along the way. I mean, we've played host to two American presidents here, and former president, Bill Clinton, and former president, George W. Bush, and former first ladies, Michelle Obama, former first lady, Laura Bush, General Colin Powell, a plethora of athletes and entertainers. And again, for me, my childhood idol, touring Henry Aaron through this museum, by far.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, my.

Bob Kendrick:

It doesn't even come ... No disrespect-

Kelly Scanlon:

I can't even imagine what a thrill that was.

Bob Kendrick:

No disrespect to all the other distinguished guests that we've welcomed, but they're not Henry Aaron. And so to tour Henry Aaron through this museum is still the most memorable experience I've had here out of so many incredibly memorable experiences. But for me to take my childhood idol on a guided tour of this museum, it doesn't get much better than that, with the exception that after we finished the tour, we got a chance to sit down and eat a platter of Gates barbecue ribs together. So I'm eating ribs with my childhood idol, that by far is my greatest day in baseball.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, my gosh. What a dream come true, my goodness. And we talk about, we've talked today about the national greatness and the national significance of this place, and everything that it stands for, everything that it houses. And I think that's reflected in you have some really awesome people on your advisory board. Talk to us about some of the folks that you have on the advisory board that, international in scope, right here in Kansas City.

Bob Kendrick:

It was really important, Kelly, when we first laid the foundation for this museum, that we go out and recruit some significant names to serve in advisory roles because I think in some ways, it was going to validate the significance of this museum. So you see the likes of General Colin Powell and George Will, Danny Glover, and others who have served us in the capacity, certainly that gave credibility to what we were building here in Kansas City. And it still remains important that we continue to find ways to align ourselves with people of influence as we continue to try and grow this institution. But we've been very fortunate to have some major players involved with kind of helping us steer the growth of this organization.

Kelly Scanlon:

And are you open right now? I know that a lot of people, or a lot of organizations, are closed down, or they're working with reduced hours. And after hearing this podcast, I know that there's going to be a lot of Kansas Citians, who have thought, "You know, one day, maybe I'll get down there." But they're really going to want to go now after hearing this interview I think.

Bob Kendrick:

I certainly hope so. And we are back open, Kelly. At the time of recording this, we've now been open about a month. We reopened June 16th. We were shut down for three months. And I'll be honest, that was one of the most darkest times in recent museum memory for me. And our team was off, but I would come into the office and get a little work done, so that we wouldn't completely shut down our operations. And over those three months, I never stepped foot inside the gallery. I can't remember a time that I ever felt that way. But I also can't remember a time where I felt like there was no life in this museum, a place that is dedicated to keeping alive the memory of those who created this incredible story. And I just could not make myself go into the exhibit. And when we reopened June 16th, our first visitor was a young lady from Brooklyn, New York.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wow.

Bob Kendrick:

And my good friend, Vahe Gregorian, a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, had joined me to kind of see what it was going to be like our first day back open after being closed for three months. And so she was our first visitor, and she and her husband were driving through Kansas City on their way to Colorado. He had some work to do here, and so she had a little free time. She saw that we were back open. And Kelly, when she walked into this building and bought a ticket to come to the Negro Leagues Museum, I ain't lying, it was like a Publisher's Clearinghouse moment for me. I wanted the confetti and the balloons to be released. It was everything. And I didn't have no check for her, everything except the check. But I was so excited because it was life in this museum again.

Bob Kendrick:

And even though we're operating under some tremendously scaled down capacity limits, it's just great to have people back in the museum. And we feel very strongly about the plan that we put together as it relates to the safety protocols that will keep our staff and our patrons safe as they come and experience the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. We now have split our operating day into two sessions, so we run a morning session Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM. We close down for an hour, clean, sanitize, and then we reopen from 2:00 until 5:00 PM. And then on Sundays, we're one session from noon until 4:00 PM. So yes, you're right, reduced hours and basically reduced capacity for each of those sessions. But again, it's not business as usual, but it's business.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've got life again.

Bob Kendrick:

We've got life in this place again, absolutely.

Kelly Scanlon:

Bob, it has been such a pleasure. Just thank you so much for everything that you do to keep the museum going, to keep that spirit alive. We really appreciate it.

Bob Kendrick:

Well, this is an honor for me to take on this task of trying to lead and work with a fabulous team of people who make this museum run efficiently every single day. We also know, Kelly, that the work that we do is so much bigger than any of us, and that if we do this right, we have an opportunity to leave a legacy, something that will stand the test of time for others to enjoy for generations to come. And that's what motivates us. That's what drives us. We're so proud of this great museum. And I do hope that people will come down to experience what people from around the globe have been so excited about, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, so thank you for the opportunity to talk a little bit about the history and this great museum.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Bob Kendrick for joining us on this episode of Banking on KC, to share the history of Negro Leagues Baseball and to tell us about the fascinating stories behind some of the museum's collections. The slogan Bob created for the museum, where history touches home, beautifully conveys what the Negro Leagues represented both on and off the field. It symbolizes a story that is much bigger than the game of baseball. As Bob said, these male and female athletes of various races forged a glorious history in the midst of an inglorious time, bringing the country together through baseball. All the league considered was whether a person had the talent to play. Country Club Bank has a long history in Kansas City. And as a family owned bank, that history touches home. We are committed to serving Kansas Citians and providing the assistance you need to showcase your talents and abilities, and to successfully reach your dreams. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.