Mike on America

Negro League Baseball Museum: A Lesson In Business History

Welcome to Buck's Place. I'm talking about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museumin the 18th and Vine neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri. What you find here is a history lesson wrapped in a sports legend with a hint of just how supercilious 'organized' sport too often is.

The NLBM was born of an idea to honor those once excluded by race from the so-called Major Leagues. The Negro Leagues lasted roughly 40 years, from 1920 to their extinction in 1960. What killed them is what they so desperately wanted---inclusion, integration. Their decline was marked by Jackie Robinson's signing with Brooklyn in 1947, sixty years ago. A watershed event, not only in sport, but in American social development. A development we have yet to see reach its full maturity.

One of the early boosters, driving forces, behind the NLBM was John 'Buck' O'Neil. A player in the Negro Leagues. A man who warmed all hearts when he entered a room. A man that when he was denied entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstownshortly before he died at 94 in October of 2006, consoled others. Showed no bitterness.

But O'Neil IS in the NLBM. As are all of the 2600 or so men and women who just wanted to play baseball at a time in our country's history when they were denied the so called 'big' stage of the majors by one thing. The color of their skin.

It's an intriguing story. It's also a business history lesson. Much of what became a thriving 'black' economy in this country did so in the wake of the Negro Leagues. Hotels, restaurants, barber shops, every support business you can think of developed around the teams and the cities in which they played. Attendance one year reached 400,000. Negro League games routinely outdrew the 'white' league games in the same stadiums.

The importance of what the NLBM means is not lost on corporate America today. Nikeworking with the NLBM to produce a new line of Negro League shirts and jerseys. Bank of America announcing it's sponsorship of a nationwide NLBM tour targeted at traditionally black colleges and universities. It's good business, both on the bottom line and the social line of the ledger. Attendance at the museum, which has become a lynchpin for the redevelopment of the whole district, has increased yearly. 52,000 passed through the front door last year.

A walk through the NLBM however is not without a price beyond the entrance fee. You might be forced to think. You will wonder at how generations of black players endured what they did just to play. You will get a sense of the importance of community, of togetherness. There is likely to be a touch of sadness. For what could have been. And frankly, you may get a little mad.

'Buck' O'Neil devoted his life, not only to playing the game of baseball, but to preserving a piece of it. He spoke, toured, helped write books, served as a living testament to the game he loved. And yet, when the time came, when he could have been voted into 'the Hall', he was not. There are all sorts of statistical arguments to make for inclusion or exclusion--RBI, HR, SB, AB--but the undeniable fact is simple. Cooperstown would be a better place with Buck O'Neil in it. Kansas City is lucky to have him.

Heading to the Northwest this week.

See you along the road.

Questions?  Comments?  mikeonamerica@nbcuni.com

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