By Keilani Fleming, Guest Blogger
It was a blustery evening as Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum located in Kansas City, Missouri, made his way up to the podium to speak on his passion; the true history of baseball in the context of the Negro Leagues.
Kendrick visited Lone Tree Arts Center, in part, as a complement to the current running theater production, August Wilson’s Fences. Several of the baseball players about which Kendrick speaks are referenced in the play, set in the 1950s, by the main character, Troy Maxson, played to perfection by Esau Pritchett.
I had a moment of panic when Kendrick, early in his multimedia presentation, listed off baseball stats for some of the great known names in the game like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron. Whereas I’ve only watched baseball since I witnessed the ballerina-like grace of Troy Tulowitzki during his rookie year with the Colorado Rockies, my 14 year old daughter accompanied me for the evening and was indifferent, at best, to baseball. In that moment, I thought of my father-in-law, probably sitting at home watching the Rockies game, and how he would have been a more enthusiastic choice.
I chose my daughter because she loves historical content and a good story. As it worked out, I wasn’t wrong in my choice of guest.
Initially, I started taking notes on the various players on the Negro Leagues, names I’ve never heard of before with my limited baseball knowledge. Eventually, I put down my pen and just listened to the engaging speaker in front of me with his wealth of anecdotal knowledge of the likes of “Rube” Foster, “Satchel” Paige, Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, Martin Dihigo, and “Buck” O’Neil.
Previously, when I thought of athletes of the past, I didn’t believe they would be able to cut it in the modern day. Athletes are faster, stronger, hits are further, pitches are faster, and training has become an exact science so athletes have precision honed skills. But story after story from Kendrick showed me just how wrong I was. “Cool Papa” Bell running all the bases in 12 seconds. Gibson clearing the bleachers at Yankee Stadium with a homerun. Satchel’s 105 mph pitches.
As Kendrick “(took) control of the pen of history and (told) the story as it should have been told,” I was proud my daughter’s now expanded knowledge of baseball had a foundation in these stories; the stories of the Negro Leagues as they made their way in a segregated sport to produce some of the best athletes known to date.
Most surprising to me were Kendrick’s assertions about the man who broke through the color barrier of baseball in 1947: Jackie Robinson. Kendrick and others believe Robinson’s ability to not only be an exceptional athlete but also his ability to not get ruffled by the backlash of discrimination he experienced, helped spur a bigger conversation about civil rights. Kendrick described Robinson as “not the best man, but the right man” for the job.
When the question and answer portion of the event commenced, my eyes traveled across the room and I noticed something rather remarkable. The audience spanned from kids to seniors, across races and genders. I had spent an hour listening to Kendrick tell the story of how the Negro Leagues were born out of segregation to bring integration and I was witnessing its true mass appeal, over 70 years after Robinson joined Major League Baseball, at Lone Tree Arts Center.
For more information on the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum located in the historic district of 18th and Vine in Kansas City, Missouri, please visit http://www.nlbm.com.
For tickets to Lone Tree Arts Center production of August Wilson’s Fence showing until April 21, 2018, please visit http://www.lonetreeartscenter.org/fences.