Negro Leagues Beleaguered
Buck O’Neil blew out the candles on his 91st birthday cake last month and had one wish. The local Negro Leagues baseball legend asked that 9,100 people visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 18th and Vine during the month of November.
Despite an aggressive, monthlong advertising campaign and free admission near the end, only about 4,500 made it through the museum’s doors.
“We are all disappointed,” says Bob Kendrick, the museum’s director of marketing. “But we understand it was a really ambitious goal.”
What Kendrick, O’Neil and other backers don’t understand is why local African-Americans aren’t embracing the museum with the pride in ownership that they’d expected.
“Our first thought was that, when we opened the doors to the museum [in 1991], black folks would just run in here,” Kendrick says. “That hasn’t happened.” The museum’s best month was last July, when 7,600 visitors took in its life-sized bronze statues of Negro Leagues All Stars and period rooms that transport patrons to the 1930s and ’40s. But even that number was disappointing for Kendrick, because about 75 percent of those visitors were from out of town.
When locals do show up, they’re typically baseball fans from Kansas City’s more affluent suburbs. The museum has no scientific way to measure its demographics, but Kendrick has a pretty good picture of its most loyal fan base. “Our audience is basically white males in the age range of 35 and up,” he says.
Local blacks aren’t the only ones avoiding the museum. When Kendrick approached the cable network Black Entertainment Television two years ago about broadcasting the museum’s annual Legacy Awards, he was shocked to hear that officials there didn’t think the museum’s showcase event would appeal to their audience.
“I was insulted by BET’s reaction,” recalls Kendrick. “I was extremely disappointed that they didn’t think young black males were interested in the culture and heritage of the Negro Leagues. They told us that we were not a part of their demographic.”
The bare reality is that BET may be right. Young black males aren’t particularly interested in what the museum has to offer.
Kendrick says part of the problem is the game of baseball itself. Inner-city kids aren’t drawn to it like their grandfathers were. “It used to be that every African-American kid played baseball,” Kendrick says. But today, they have little connection to the sport. “Other sports like football and basketball are just more glamorous. I have a son who is a freshman — and a left-hander at that — and his dad works at a baseball museum and he doesn’t want to play baseball!”
Museum officials wanted to entice local African-American youths to learn the history of the Negro Leagues and its importance in the civil rights movement. “It’s important for urban kids to go to a museum and see people [on display] who look like them,” Kendrick says. “How many other museums are there like that?”
But kids apparently aren’t interested in what the museum has to offer — except for the Negro Leagues apparel that has become popular with the hip-hop generation. “They are wearing the Negro Leagues merchandise,” Kendrick says, laughing. “They don’t necessarily know why they’re wearing it, but they are wearing it. At least that gives us a base.”
Last weekend, Tyrone Thomas stood on John “Buck” O’Neil Way, the street running directly behind the museum, with 100 or more local rappers who had gathered to promote their art form. Like two other members of his rap group, the Squad, Thomas wore a just-off-the-rack Kansas City Royals jacket. He’d never been inside the museum. “It’s not a rowdy crowd,” Thomas said, explaining why more young blacks aren’t attracted to the museum. “There ain’t no Allen Iverson in there dunkin’ on people.”
Jeffrey Mayfield, a 1995 Southwest High School graduate who was also attending the rap gathering, was more blunt. “This museum was meant to attract white people. They don’t want us in there with our baggy jeans and braided hair. We don’t fear them. They fear us. They’ve got white guys in suits in there they want to give them money. They don’t want us in there.”
The museum usually sees a spike in attendance from black visitors only when the fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago White Sox or the Chicago Cubs come to town. “Most of the adult African-American visitors we have here come from outside the Kansas City area. Most are tourists,” Kendrick says.
Initially, there were talks about locating the museum at Union Station or Kauffman Stadium to take advantage of the built-in tourism crowd there. But the Negro Leagues Museum was supposed to help drive the revitalization of 18th and Vine — that’s why museum officials decided to expand from the institution’s humble beginnings down the street from the Gem Theatre to the current home it shares with the American Jazz Museum.
“This is the place we should be,” Kendrick says. “The museum is the anchor to the 18th and Vine resurrection. We are fully committed to making this work here.”
Kendrick talks about the museum with passion — the same kind of passion he wishes to evoke from black people in this city. But the museum has been struggling to stay financially viable almost from day one. One of the simplest financial solutions would be for one or more modern-day millionaire baseball players — who owe their very livelihood to the men who went before them — to make a sizable donation to the museum. This hasn’t happened.
“It would be one of the greatest PR moves ever for a core group of African-American professional athletes to make a substantial financial donation that would fund this museum far into the future,” Kendrick says. “Why guys who have so much have done so little is a mystery.” Adding insult to injury are nights like the one last February, when the museum held its classy Legacy Awards banquet in Kansas City. An embarrassing few award winners even bothered to show up.
So here’s another solution: Move the museum to someplace like Olathe.
“We would probably triple our attendance,” Kendrick admits. “I do believe that.” But Kendrick and his staff have no intention of leaving the historic 18th and Vine district.
Buck O’Neil isn’t going to have many more birthdays. Time will eventually quiet the strongest voice and most recognizable face affiliated with the museum. What will happen after he is gone?
Kansas City has lost hometown landmarks like the Big 8 Conference and the NCAA offices over the past decade. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see the Negro Leagues Museum being wooed away by St. Louis or Chicago. The museum has remained at 18th and Vine because it believes it has an obligation to the African-American community. How long before that obligation becomes a reason to leave?