Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: Breaking Barriers Through Baseball

See Photo Location
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Integrated baseball teams existed in the United States until around 1900 when Jim Crow laws created segregation in professional baseball and excluded Black athletes.

Black players eventually formed their own teams and leagues and traveled the country to play ball. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster convened a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City where he and several other Midwestern team owners established the Negro National League. The Kansas City Monarchs was a charter member of the league.

Over the next 30 years, a total of seven Negro Leagues were established. The leagues became a source of economic development in many Black communities. Because legal segregation prevented Black players from eating in the same restaurants and staying in the same lodging as white players, many minority-owned businesses flourished as they provided services for Black players and their fans.

In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers drafted Jackie Robinson, a promising young player with the Kansas City Monarchs. The decision was heralded as an advancement in civil rights, but it also marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. The last major Negro Leagues season concluded in 1951.

This history is the cornerstone of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine Jazz District. The museum features some of the greatest athletes to ever play the game. James “Cool Papa” Bell was said to be so fast he could turn out the light switch off and be in bed before the room went dark. The legendary Satchel Paige became the first Black pitcher in the American Leagues. Exhibits also pay tribute to the women who also played in the Negro Leagues.

A tour of the museum offers much more than baseball history. Visitors also learn about America’s segregated past and how the sport helped break down racial barriers.

The museum and the stories it shares would not be possible without the vision and leadership of John Jordon “Buck” O’Neil. A first baseman and manager in the Negro Leagues, O’Neil also worked as a scout and became the first black coach in Major League Baseball. Featured in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary, Baseball, O’Neil garnered national attention – which he used to highlight the story of the Negro Leagues. He spearheaded the effort to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. In the museum’s early days, visitors sometimes were treated to a chat with him in person.

In 2006, at 94 years old, O’Neil made a cross-country road trip to shine a spotlight on Negro Leagues Baseball. Sports writer Joe Posnanski tagged along and turned the experience into a book, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.

The book details O’Neil’s successful effort to ensure that former Negro Leagues players were enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2006, fans and supporters were angered when O’Neil was denied induction into the Hall of Fame by one vote. He took the news in stride, saying, God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.”

The same year, Congress designated the Kansas City museum America’s National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

In 2020, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the official elevation of the Negro Leagues to Major League status, “correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history.” Major League Baseball now recognizes the statistics and records of Negro Leagues players between 1920 and 1948.

In 2021, O’Neil was selected for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.