Among the nearly 38,000 royal blue seats at Kauffman Stadium, home of the 2014 American Leaguechampion Kansas City Royals, is one very special seat just behind home plate. You can't miss it; it stands out in bright red. From 1988 to 2006, a certified rock star in Kansas City and an unassuming celebrity in the world of professional sports filled it: Buck O'Neil.
Buck O'Neil was the first African-American manager in the major leagues and one of the game's most talented players. His managing career began in 1962 with the Chicago Cubs, and in 1988 O'Neil came home to scout for the Royals.
However, for most of his career, O'Neil played for the Kansas City Monarchs with the likes of Jackie Robinson, before No. 42 broke the color barrier in 1947. Never heard of the Kansas City Monarchs? That's because the team doesn't exist any longer, nor do any of the 20 teams that made up the Negro National Leagues.
Few fans of today's game remember baseball as it was then, segregated by color, and maybe that's a good thing. But true fans of America's pastime who live for the crack of the bat and the boys of summer, many of whom have pilgrimaged to Cooperstown, will also want to pay a respectful visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
A statue of the late Buck O'Neil stands in the lobby of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located in Kansas City's historic 18th & Vine Jazz District, just a few blocks from the old YMCA where the Negro Leagues were founded in 1920.
It is fitting that Buck O'Neil's image is one of the first visitors see upon entering the museum, because Buck was the guiding force for getting the museum off the ground and open in 1994. And until his death in October 2006, very few days passed that he was not there greeting guests with his generous smile and mischievous spirit.
Covering about 100 years, from the Civil War until the last of the Negro League teams closed in the 1960's, the NLBM explains how the leagues operated, which is quite different from the financial empires of today. It covers traveling conditions on the road, unusual promotions, and the extremely modest pay scale for players who could never have imagined the A-Rod level salaries of today.
But overall it focuses on athletes who loved the game of baseball and simply loved to play. Visitors get to know the great names like Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, but this museum does not elevate one player over another. As the introductory movie claims, "They Were All Stars."
This museum tells more than just a story of baseball and segregation in the country, but of the evolution of a society. Like many communities, the black communities of the 1920's and 30's rallied around their sports teams, but when Jackie Robinson went to the Dodgers, it all began to change. Segregation followed in business, schools, and neighborhoods. America changed because of baseball.
Baseball Remembers the Negro Leagues
Jackie Robinson Day is April 15, the anniversary of the day he first stepped up to bat in Brooklyn. All MLB players will wear the # 42 that day. In Kansas City, Sunday, May 17 is salute to the Negro Leagues Day at Kauffman Stadium and everyone will receive a KC Monarchs hat, the team where Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Buck O'Neil played together, the longest running team in the Negro Leagues.
And look for that red seat four rows behind home plate, one in a sea of blue. That seat is reserved for someone special, free admission to someone who has made great contributions to his/her community or profession or country. Its a seat that honors the best in the human spirit, the legacy of Buck O'Neil, and the Negro National Leagues baseball players.
Room 404 in the 816 Hotel, a boutique hotel in Kansas City's Westport district, is dedicated to the Monarchs. The room, which features a mural of the team among many mementos, also includes two tickets to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
More than a visit to a simple museum, it's a remembrance of an important era in American history; one that changed it forever.
Have you been to the museum? What did you think?
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