Many honors have crossed my paths over the last 34 years in this business of media covering sports, such as first Minnesota reporter to interview icon Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls live in 1993 on Twin Cities sports (KFAN) radio on a game day, and first Black man to host a live, three-hour radio show Monday through Friday, 12-3 on KFAN. I hosted then-Vikings head coach Dennis Green’s weekly radio network show for eight years. I’m the first sports writer in history to cover his own son in a Super Bowl.
Yes, I have been blessed; but an honor that means just as much was when I was asked years ago to be the voice of the National Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City. When I was contracted years ago to voice the stories behind the many greats that played in the Negro Leagues, which date back to 1920, I was honored that I was asked.
Last week, while covering the KC Masterpiece Midsummer Classic, the 83rd All-Star Game featuring the biggest stars of both the American and National Leagues, I paid a visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM).
The Paseo YMCA in Kansas City is a red brick rectangle building that is one of the most important structures in baseball history. Back then it was a meeting place, serving as the vibrant hub of Kansas City’s African American community. It was opened in 1914 and has been a source of pride for Black Kansas City residents, who spent years raising the money for its construction near 18th and Vine in the heart of the famous jazz district.
The first stable African American professional baseball league, the Negro National League, was founded at the Paseo YMCA in 1920 and thrived until the stock market crash of 1929 and the death of Rube Foster, who died prematurely in 1930. A second Negro National League was established in 1933. It was Foster, the son of a preacher, who founded the Negro Leagues. He was one incredible businessman, fearless and gregarious.
The Kansas City Monarchs thrived as the one of the founding teams of the Negro Leagues until 1965. Among the other teams in the first and second Negro National League were the Homestead Grays, Indianapolis ABC’s, St. Louis Giants, Detroit Stars, and the Chicago American Giants.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a keepsake of American history from a time when we had no options but to pool together as one and pursue our dreams to play baseball.
Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Joe Williams and Chet Brewer are just a few of the names of the players, as well as a rookie playing for the Monarchs named Jackie Robinson in 1945 who was being scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Other Monarchs players were Larry Doby, first Black player to play in the American League, Willard Brown, Hank Thompson, and the great Buck O’Neil. It was O’Neil in the late 1980s who spearheaded efforts to found a museum.
It paid off, because in 1990 the Negro League Baseball Museum opened. O’Neil was the first Black coach ever hired in Major League Baseball and served prior to that as a scout for the Chicago Cubs. It was O’Neil’s absence of bitterness about the racism that kept him out of MLB as a player that eventually opened the door to preserving Negro Leagues history for a new generation.
Today the museum’s most ambitious project is a proposed $17 million restoration of the Negro Leagues’ birthplace, the Paseo YMCA and to honor Buck O’Neil with an education and research center. So far only a fraction of the funding has been raised. However, MLB has directed that a portion of the proceeds from this year’s 83rd All-Star Game in Kansas City will go to the NLBM.
So the next time you’re in Kansas City, get your ribs at Gates, Arthur Bryants, or KC Masterpiece, but also pay a visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. One of the voices you’ll hear belongs to me.
Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, and on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm; he also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2), and you can follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.