KANSAS CITY, Mo.
The tour begins behind a wall of chicken wire, a barrier both real and symbolic. On the other side of the fence is a field filled with life-sized bronze statues of some of the greatest ballplayers the world has barely seen. You have now stepped into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the only way to get to that field on the other side is by walking the length of its halls and exhibits. In other words, this time you must earn your way onto their field.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon and his coaching staff were here Friday afternoon, ostensibly for Maddon to pick up a manager of the year award and for the Rays to present a $5,000 donation to the museum. But as the tour begins, you understand that, for some, this day will become far more personal than ceremonial.
The museum's guide is leading the group from room to room, explaining in rich detail the lives and struggles of black ballplayers of another day. After a short time, you look around and realize the traveling party is missing some of its members.
Hitting coach Steve Henderson and first-base coach George Hendrick — the two African-Americans on the Rays coaching staff — have broken away from the tour. They are walking separately, quietly, stopping from time to time to read the plaques or study frayed photographs.
The Negro Leagues disbanded in 1960 — a year after the Red Sox became the last Major League team to integrate — so neither Henderson, 56, nor Hendrick, 59, are old enough to have worn the uniforms of the Atlanta Black Crackers or Homestead Grays. But they are from a generation of ballplayers who can still recall minor-league towns and spring training sites with hotels and restaurants that refused to serve blacks. They are from an era of America where racism was neither uncommon nor well disguised.
Hendrick, who lived through the unpleasantness of a minor-league season in Birmingham, Ala., in 1968, seems the most affected by the memories of other lives on the walls around him. He later turns down an interview request, explaining the situation is too personal for him to discuss.
"I signed in '62, and had some problems in the Southern League in Birmingham and other cities. I played in Little Rock (Ark.) with Dick Allen … so, yeah, we went through it," said Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, who visited the museum Thursday and told a story of having to sleep in a funeral parlor in one town because there were no hotels for blacks. "We couldn't eat and sleep with the white ballplayers, but we got through it. It was just something that happened, it's part of the history of the game.
"This museum is important for today's ballplayers to see. Jackie Robinson was the first, (Larry) Doby was the second, but most of these kids playing now have no idea. That building, and the artifacts there, are history, just like Cooperstown. The Latin kids, and kids of color, ought to know where it all started, and what they should be proud of."
Maybe that's why Hendrick made it his personal mission to visit players through the clubhouse Friday and invite them to return with him to the museum this afternoon. By the time he was through, about a dozen players had agreed.
What they will hear are stories of Hall of Famer Cap Anson leading boycotts against black players in the 1880s, and the gentlemen's agreement to keep baseball segregated. They will learn commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis forbid the wearing of Major League uniforms in exhibition games against the Negro Leagues because he wanted to limit the embarrassment of losing to black players. They will hear about professional baseball's first night games and churches accommodating service times for ball games.
And they will learn about the players. About Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. About Oscar Charleston and Ray Dandridge. About Satchel Paige and Martin Dihigo. Today, they are just names from the past, but these men had an impact on a game, and a society.
"If you are black, or of Hispanic descent, you owe something to these guys. They are the ones who laid the foundation for young players to make a living today," said Bob Kendrick, the museum's vice president of marketing. "You can't condemn the young guys for not knowing something they have no way of knowing about. If your parent or grandparent didn't tell you about it, there was no way to learn about this from some history class.
"So our job is to reach out to these young athletes, and hopefully get them in here and experience this. I have had the opportunity to walk a number of current players through and they are all blown away."
As Hendrick walks around the clubhouse recruiting players for today's visit, he discovers rookie pitcher David Price went to the museum on a previous visit to Kansas City. And when Price finds out Hendrick is going back, he immediately signs on.
"It's just awesome. These are people you've never heard of, and you realize the impact they had on the game of baseball and their time," Price said. "For me, there's never been another museum for me that's been more intriguing. I remember sitting in the video room, watching film of these people, and getting teary-eyed. It was definitely a life-changing experience for me."
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]