NLBM: Thriving again and looking to the future

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You remember a few years ago when the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City was consumed in both controversy and red ink thanks largely to the mismanagement of a prior administration, which inexplicably tried to shift the institution’s focus away from its founder and spiritual heart and soul, Buck O’Neil?

Well, those days are in the past, according to current NLBM President Bob Kendrick, who tells this blogger that after an aggressive blitz of fundraising, some serious financial belt-tightening and a general righting of the ship, things appear to have turned around for the once-besieged institution.

Such progress is especially significant now given that 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the NLBM. While Kendrick stresses that museum administrators and supports are fighting a never-ending battle to keep the facility in the black, things are almost assuredly looking up, with the launching of several new initiatives, displays and promotions in the offing in the very near future.

“We have effectively stabilized museum finances having posted four consecutive years of operating in the black,” Kendrick says. “But there’s still much to be done. We feel that we’ve just scratched the surface over our first 25 years of operation in terms of the number of people we can reach and the impact we can have as an international institution.

“In our world you are always in fundraising mode,” he adds. “We are now looking strategically at how we secure the long-term future of the NLBM through the establishment of an operating endowment. Work also continues on the exciting expansion of the NLBM to build the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center at the site of the Paseo YMCA, the birthplace of the Negro Leagues.”

The Buck O’Neil Center seems to be a key, and quite ambitious, component of the museum’s outreach and research efforts, especially because it’s being constructed at the site of such an historic event, the day Rube Foster and a handful of other visionaries got together at that YMCA to launch the first Negro National League for the 1920 season.

The founding of the first NNL was arguably the most significant event in black baseball history, because it created the first sustained, long-lasting and successful attempt at forming a circuit of African-American baseball teams.

There are signs that the country is again starting to pay attention to the NLBM — after many in the media and the baseball community had all but given up on it — is this USA Today article that lists the museum as one of the 10 non-ballpark baseball attractions every fan of the American pastime must attend.

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So we have increased recognition, new vitality and the launching of the Education and Research Center. But those are only a few signs of the NLBM’s newly established vision for the future, Kendrick says. There’s much more coming.

“This year, the NLBM is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and we have focused our programming to tout this milestone anniversary,” he asserts. “We’re continuing to challenge ourselves to create dynamic and broad-based programming that educates but also expands our reach.

“We just opened a new, free temporary 25th-anniversary exhibit entitled ‘Silver Slugging Memories,’” he adds. “The exhibit takes a fascinating look back at how the NLBM grew from a one-room office to become ‘America’s National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum,’ and the many milestones and memories that occurred over that time span. It’s been quite a journey for a museum that no one gave any chance of succeeding.

“We’re also beginning work on a new traveling exhibit, ‘Barrier Breakers,’ that will debut in 2016. The exhibit will chronicle black and Hispanic baseball players who broke their respective MLB team’s color lines.

“In addition, we’ll remain very active in building cooperative relationships with both Major- and Minor-League teams and exploring the opportunity to build permanent satellite exhibits in cities that had significant Negro League history.”

That, to say the least, is quite the formidable challenge. The ambitiousness of such a far-reaching — historically, geographically, financially and outreach-wise — is definitely daunting.

But to me, an effort to connect with minor-league teams is a welcome and much-needed endeavor, because while much of the African-American baseball story and research has traditionally focused on the segregation, then integration of the Major Leagues.

However, the fact is that the strictly-enforced Jim Crowism of the American pastime encapsulated all of “organized baseball,” including the minor-league systems that fed the Major League teams.

And when the integration of the sport did occur, it took place initially in the minor leagues — with Jackie Robinson playing for the Montreal Royals in 1946. And many of the players from the Negro Leagues and Latin America who were recruited to break the color barrier by the various MLB teams received their first seasoning in organized baseball via the minors.

It’s also vital that we celebrate the players (and managers) who integrated the various minor-league circuits that dotted the American landscape at every level of player — figures like NOLA’s own Herb Simpson, who, while he never made it to the Majors, remains a crucial part of the history of hardball integration when he became the first African American to play in not one, but two minor league circuits.

On top of that, numerous current minor league teams celebrate Negro League baseball and the history of African-Americans in the sport, much like every Major League team does.

Another cool thing the NLBM has started is the Hall of Game, which inducts players and other figures who have contributed significantly to the legacy of the Negro Leagues and who embody the spirit of the legends of the past.

And that remains the crux of the NLBM’s existence — keeping the memory alive.

“At the forefront of existence is to ensure that the legacy of the Negro Leagues plays on long after there are no players left to attest to the scope and magnitude of what these leagues represented both on-and-off the field,” Kendrick says.

“Our job as a cultural institution is to not only preserve the history but continue to develop creative and innovative ways to make this history relevant to an ever-changing generation of young learners.

“We’ve built a great attraction over the course of our first 25 years,” he concludes. “Now we’ve set our sites on securing the future of the NLBM while establishing an international headquarters for Negro Leagues and social history.

“Oh, and along that journey is our ambitious goal to become the preeminent cultural institution in the world. Like the Kansas City Monarchs, we want to be the ‘Talk of the Town…All Over the World!’”

Can the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum achieve that goal? We’ll have to see. But the fact that it manage to survive near death and come back from the brink of shuttering its doors arguably stands as a testimony to the resilience of its administration and supporters, who come from all over the country and the globe.

For more information on the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, check out its Web site and its Facebook page.

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