Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tour 2013: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

All photos of Monarch Plaza and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum available on Flickr.

Following my exciting night in Springfield, I hit the road for Kansas City a little after 8 AM.  The drive took about 2 1/2 hours and was primarily on this dangerous state highway called the Kansas City Expressway that features a 65 MPH speed limit with controlled intersections, legal U-turns, a narrow shoulder, and Amish horse-drawn wagons.  My plan when I got into town was to have lunch at the famous Arthur Bryant's BBQ.  However, on my way there, I drove past an interesting place called Monarch Plaza.  It is not at all in my nature to alter my schedule, but for some reason I felt compelled to stop.  I'm fortunate that I did, because I came to find out the plaza was built on the historic site of the former Kansas City Memorial Stadium, the former home to the Athletics and later the Royals, the NFL Chiefs, and the Negro League Monarchs.  Since the park's demolition in 1976, the site has remained mostly vacant and overgrown with a few low-income housing units where the outfield used to be, but now is a great marker of Kansas City history with plaques commemorating great athletes who played there.  Google Maps does not even show the plaza, so it must be very new.  I talked to a resident there for awhile who told me a lot of stories about the old park, and one story in particular about Reggie Jackson when he was with the KC A's supposedly hitting the longest homerun in baseball history, which cleared the stadium over the centerfield wall and rolled all the way down the street to Arthur Bryant's 4 blocks away.  After the mention of Arthur Bryant's I kind of zoned out and remembered I was on my way to mow down on some brisket, so I just politely nodded until he was done talking and left.

Before I went on this trip, I asked my friend Evan, who is a native of Kansas City, what the best place was for BBQ there, and he told me Arthur Bryant's without hesitation, and I could tell by the large tour group going in as I got there that he was probably right.  It's one of those places that is so old and entrenched in the community that you really have to be "in the know" to order properly, so I was relieved the tour group was there so I did not feel like too much of an outcast.  The open-faced burnt ends sandwich on white bread was super delicious and it kept me full well into the Royals game that night. 

My next stop after lunch was the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, only another few blocks down the road.  It shares a building with a jazz museum in the 18th & Vine District, which I came to find out on the tour was a historically significant location as a former nationally known intersection and pillar of the black community.  Typically this museum is a self-guided tour, but luck was on my side again on this trip as I got there just in time to latch on with some other folks to a private tour for some of the visiting Washington Nationals players - Denard Span, Ian Desmond, and Scott Hairston - as well as some DC media.  It is not uncommon for visiting African-American players to visit this museum (Rickie Weeks did last year when the Brewers were in town), but Hairston's visit was extra special because his grandfather was a former Triple Crown winner in the Negro Leagues.  I really learned a lot I did not know about the Negro Leagues, including how long the league survived after integration, the Monarchs being the Yankees of the Negro Leagues, Latin American presence and barnstorming tours, and most impressively, just how great some of the players were.  Satchel Paige did not make it to the major leagues until his 40s, and Josh Gibson died of a stroke just 3 months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  Many people do not know very much at all about these two players, if anything, and it could be argued that they were the greatest pitcher and hitter of all-time.  Although many individual players were celebrated here, the tour guide made it very clear that this was an all-inclusive museum, and not just a hall of fame.  After the guided tour and sneaking some photos of the Nats players, I kind of went back through the museum in reverse because I didn't really get to look at any of the exhibits in depth.  The museum runs chronologically from the 19th century, to the formation of the Negro Leagues in the 1920s, all the way through its final days in the 60s as a globetrotter-type entertainment league.  Then there were lockers dedicated to all of the Negro League players in Cooperstown and finally the "field of legends" with 9 bronze statues by position of 9 Negro League greats, with of course Paige and Gibson front and center as the starting battery.  Overall, the tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and it was a very amazing and overwhelming experience.  Anybody who considers themselves a true baseball fan definitely needs to make the trip to Kansas City and see this museum.

In total, I spent about 3 hours at the museum, then went to check in and relax at my hotel for a few minutes, and left for Kauffman Stadium around 3:30 for a 6:10 start. 

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