Geoff Folsom

Having moved to Missouri right before most attractions were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, I built up a list in my mind of places in the Midwest I wanted to visit as soon as they safely reopened.

Near the top of the list was Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which documents African-American history and its impact on the social advancement of America. So, when I saw the museum was going to reopen June 16, I booked an overnight trip for the first weekend back and visited Sunday, June 21.

I’d been to the museum once before, in 2010 but, after following the museum on social media, I got excited for a return visit. That’s partly because 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Negro Leagues and partly because I wanted to show the museum to my wife (who had never been to Kansas City).

Despite some accommodations made for social distancing, the museum was great, especially after such a lean period for attractions being open.

Like many attractions, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum currently has a system to prevent too many visitors from coming in at the same time. You are asked to book a “passport” that will allow you into the building that houses the museum, as well as a jazz museum, in a particular time window.

Most days have two windows, but since the museum is only open from noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays at the moment, you have to book during that window.

Though you aren’t required to be there at a particular time during your window, we got to the museum as soon as it opened at noon. There were a couple other groups waiting too.

After the man at the entrance checked our passport, we went to buy tickets, which are a steal at $10 (they advise buying tickets online ahead of your visit, but online purchases have a small service charge).

Inside the Museum

Visitors still enter the museum through a theater, but you walk right through, because the film isn’t playing currently due to social distancing concerns. You then are immersed in the history of African-American baseball, starting with freed slaves playing during and after the Civil War, then going into a brief period where the Major Leagues were integrated in the late 1800s.

It then tells the story of Andrew “Rube” Foster, the “father of Black Baseball,” a pitcher who went on to organize the Negro National League in 1920 at a YMCA two blocks from the museum. From there, you see uniforms and artifacts of the greats of the game like Satchel Paige and James “Cool Papa” Bell.

The museum includes replicas of a Kansas City Monarchs player’s hotel room, as well as a barber shop, where fans discussed the game. They even have trophies from the Negro Leagues.

A second, smaller, theater is still showing a film on the role African-American newspapers played in Jackie Robinson integrating the Major Leagues for good in 1947. But the theater is currently limited to two people at a time.

Though it meant the end of the Negro Leagues, the integration of the Major Leagues is celebrated with a display commemorating the first black player for every Major League team, up to when the Boston Red Sox finally integrated by adding Elijah “Pumpsie” Green in 1959.

The museum also pays tribute to Negro Leagues players who were named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, with a replica of their locker and Cooperstown plaques. It also has a large display of signed baseballs donated by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Geddy Lee of Rush.

Perhaps the highlight of the museum is the “Field of Legends,” a replica of an old ballpark, with statues of the greatest Negro Leagues players at each position on the field. It’s the last stop on the regular museum tour and a great place for photos.

The museum also has the temporary Centennial Art Exhibition going on now. It features great paintings of Negro League legends by artist Graig Kreindler.

My favorite was a series of small paintings of Jackie Robinson from his early days as a college athlete at UCLA until his post-playing years.

The exhibit also includes a throne made of baseball bats in the style of the iron throne on “Game of Thrones.”

Even though the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is not a massive facility, this is one of my favorite museums to visit, one of the few I’d pay to go to repeatedly. It combines one of my favorite subjects, baseball, with the history of the civil rights movement.

I still learned new things, like that then-Yankees President Larry MacPhail wrote a letter opposing integration of the Major Leagues in 1945, two years before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers. Yet, MacPhail is not only in the Hall of Fame, he has an annual award presented in his honor by Minor League Baseball.

The museum shows how people were able to make the best out of the horrific situation of racism in the country and in the Major Leagues. And how the decades-long fight for inclusion was, eventually, able to change minds.

The fight against injustice and for inclusion continues to this day, even in sports. The same day we visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, a noose was found in the garage stall of NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, who is black. The FBI is now investigating the sickening act.