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The sordid travels of a Cubs fan: Kansas City, including the Negro Leagues Museum

BCB’s Danny Rockett went to KC for a couple of Cubs games and so much more!

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Danny Rockett

EDITOR’S NOTE: While this series and trip took place last month, I thought it would still be interesting to read about Danny’s excursion to Kansas City, especially the Negro Leagues Museum.

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City sings Will in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, but this time it’s the Royals that went as fer as they can go. At least for awhile it seems. The Royals are the second-worst team in the major leagues this year, quite a hard landing from their World Series title in 2015. But Kansas City has always been a place of hard landings and new beginnings. K.C. was one of the last stops going west on the Oregon Trail. It was the place Jackie Robinson landed, playing for the Monarchs before being snatched up by the Dodgers, righting a long standing injustice and integrating baseball. Kansas City is a place where you can live out your dream of collecting pieces of genealogical hair art and open a thriving museum and be visited by Ozzy Osbourne. More on that later.

This was my first big baseball trip of the year, and my first trip ever to Kansas City. With only a few short days to spend, weekday day job obligations, and two Cubs ballgames to attend, I readied myself for a whirlwind of Cubs fan friends, site seeing, BBQ, and baseball, all of this achieved simultaneously. I knew exactly where to start: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and its president, Bob Kendrick.

I met Bob through Twitter the off-season before the Cubs won the World Series, while reading “Only the Ball Was White” with listeners of my podcast The Son Ranto Show. I asked Mr. Kendrick for an interview about the Negro League stars we were reading about in the book, and what I expected to be a short conversation became an expert lecture length college course about who the players of the Negro Leagues were, and more importantly what they accomplished in the face of adversity.

The existence of the Negro Leagues has always made me sad. Sad about the stupidity of racism. Sad about the lack of food and housing available to the best ballplayers in the world. Sad that there are no MLB records of Satchel Paige facing Babe Ruth in the World Series. But my conversations with Bob Kendrick have evolved my complicated feelings on the Negro Leagues. Mr. Kendrick has created The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum not to mourn what we might have lost to bigotry and hatred, but to celebrate the legacy of some of the greatest ballplayers in history in the face of prejudice.

The NLBM is laid out as a timeline. People of African descent playing baseball dates back to the exact same time as anyone in the United States playing baseball. My family was still cricketing back in England, but African Americans were here and creating baseball. Jackie Robinson might have broken a long standing gentlemen’s agreement barring blacks when he was signed by the Dodgers, but it’s a fallacy that he was the first black professional baseball player to play with white people. Blacks and whites barnstormed together in the off season and met in games on their way to and from Spring Training. Plus, because of being shut out of organized baseball in the United States, the Negro Leagues became one of the largest majority black owned businesses in the United States, unfortunately/fortunately, financially ruined in 1959 after MLB, an all-white owned business signed all the Negro League’s greatest stars, folding the mostly black-owned enterprise.

The history of two leagues, one male and white, the other, any other color than white, and sometimes even gender neutral, is a history to be celebrated for their individual contributions to the game. Every player and fan stands on the shoulders of the people who were a part of both the Negro Leagues and segregated white MLB baseball.

As Bob Kendrick says, The story of the Negro Leagues is really a prototypical American story. If you work hard you can make something great in the United States. As second-class citizens in their own country, the men and women who created the Negro Leagues booked the hotels and trains, fixed the buses, scheduled the games, accomplished as much as any struggling class of Americans at the time. These unsung heroes made it possible for the greatest ballplayers of all time to play baseball and make the game we see today. But The Negro Leagues reach goes further than that with their contribution to bringing baseball to the Caribbean, Mexico and South America. Down there, they didn’t care what color you were and many of the star Negro League players were treated like kings, many opting to depart from the United States.

Cubs fans have the Negro Leagues to thank for Ernie Banks and Buck O’Neil, but we also have to thank them for Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, plus thousands of other players who had baseball brought to Puerto Rico and Venezuela by Negro League ballplayers.

The history is incredibly rich, and just like my interview with Bob Kendrick, what I had planned as a couple hours at the museum turned into twice that amount of time. If you’re ever in Kansas City, you have to go. If Bob Kendrick is there, prepare to be educated and entertained.

Here are some pics of the museum.

After the museum, which we stayed at until closing time, we had a couple of hours to kill before meeting Corey from the Ivy Envy podcast and his crew for some BBQ. When I say we, I mean my girlfriend Nicole, good friend John, and local KC Cubs fan and friend Ryan who invited us over to his apartment. He pulled out this Cubs bat boy jersey which may or may not be Steve Goodman’s. There is a legitimate story behind it, but without DNA testing we may never be certain.

Steve Goodman’s Jersey?

We all met up at Char Bar for some KC BBQ. The food was good, the beer selection vast and they had room for our group of 16. Judging from the Cubs crowd at the Negro Leagues Museum and the next day at the game, we were not the only Cubs fan party of 16 in Kansas City eating dinner that evening. The outdoor picnic atmosphere was perfect for our fun group. My suggestion for ordering BBQ in KC, just get the burn ends and sides. They were the best. Personally, I’ve had better BBQ in Chicago.

The next day, Nicole and I spent the morning at the hotel working, only venturing out to a close by famous chili joint named Dixon’s, where local ex-President Harry Truman used to eat. He might have been a decent President, but his taste in chili, sometimes served over spaghetti like in Cincinnati, is horrible.

Dixon’s Chili

Just because something is famous and has been around a long time doesn’t mean it’s good. I mean, look at the Cubs for 108 years!

But those days are over and now the Cubs have the best Chili! Chili Davis! It was time to watch some baseball.

Ryan picked Nicole and me up with his girlfriend Tara at the hotel and headed over to Ivy Envy’s tailgate tent. The parking lot was jammed full of Cubs fans and we certainly did our part adding to the numbers.

After a few beers and snacks with the many Cubs fan friends I have made over the years, we went into the ballpark and immediately saw a new friend! NLBM President Bob Kendrick! A President with better taste in clothing, and most likely Chili, than Harry Truman.

Bob was at the ballgame to receive a $26,000 giant check from the Royals. I’m sure it will go a long way to repair the damage caused by vandals at the Buck O’Neil center. Some idiots cut the water pipes. I shudder to think of their motivations.

We had great seats to cheer on Mr. Kendrick as he received his oversized novelty check.

Ryan had secured four club level box seats for us through his job. For free! Nice view eh?

In the club seats, we had our own concessions and servers brought us beer and other items off an extensive menu. I don’t know what compelled me to order the fish and chips from the server, maybe it was my cricket playing ancestors? Quality wise, It was the same fare as you’d find at a rundown Irish bar. Passable.

The Cubs won both games that I attended by the scores of 3-1 and 5-0.

Enjoy some pics I took of the baseball action!

Our seats were so good in the first game we spent most of the time in them, soaking us in the ninth as the rains moved in. During the second game, our seats were the cheapest you could possibly buy. The artists life, one day a prince the next a pauper. During game two, Nicole and I checked out the stadium that celebrated a World Series victory only three short years ago.

Named after Ewing M. Kauffman, who after a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry won the bidding rights to the new MLB expansion Royals in 1969, Kauffman, built in 1973, is the only remaining stadium built between 1966 and 1991 and currently stands as the sixth-oldest ballpark in the majors. It was extensively renovated by Opening Day 2009. Kauffman houses, many concessions choices, a vast kids play area, and an excellent Royals museum, something I hope the Cubs build where the Jostens is currently housed in Gallagher Way. Either a Cubs museum, or a watermelon smashing facility in honor of Gallagher for who I assume Gallagher Way is named.

Kauffman doesn’t have any watermelon smashing facilities, but they do have a lot! If I were to rank Kauffman on the list of ballparks I’ve attended. I’d probably put it somewhere in the middle. However, I can say that I enjoy it more than watching games at the other Missouri ballpark, Busch Stadium. The only real drawback to Kauffman is getting there. It’s a parking lot tailgate culture so you mostly have to drive into the lot which means long car lines in and out. I prefer to walk to the game if possible like you can in St. Louis, but Kauffman’s beer and food selection is way more extensive. The best advantage Kauffman has over Busch is its lack of Cardinals fans, and my take on KC’s stadium is definitely skewed because the crowd at Kauffman when I visited was mostly Cubs fans, which is always more fun. Plus a couple of Cubs W’s always makes for a better time. Check out my pics of the place.

On my travels around the stadium I bumped into this lively gentleman.

And this not so lively gentleman.

And after three days of sightseeing, two games of baseball, and lots of conversations with Cubs fan friends new and old, I felt more like the latter gentleman.

However, I was not too tired to hit one more museum on the way out of town: Leila’s Hair Museum! Over 2,000 pieces of wreaths and jewelry made of human hair! This was an art form I was previously unfamiliar with. Apparently, immigrants, mostly from regions around modern day Germany brought the process of weaving hair to the United States during the Victorian era, but the art form can be traced back to the 12th century. Many families used the wreaths for genealogical purposes and multiple family members hair was included in the final product, usually a wreath. Sort of a family tree of hair. It’s wild stuff! And even though the museum costs $15 a person, a steep price to pay to see hair art, it was well worth the price seeing how it is the only hair art museum in existence! There is one more hair museum I’ve found called Avano’s in Turkey, but the Turkish museum is really more just a bunch of hair. Leila’s Hair Museum contains art pieces.

Nicole and I had to return the rental car and catch a flight, so we didn’t get to spend as much time at the hair museum as we would have liked. Didn’t want to cut it too close and get ourselves into an even hairier situation. Ba dum cha!

What can I say? Great food (except the chili), great people, interesting places to visit. Kansas City, you’re A-OK! I didn’t see the burlesque show that Will Parker talks about in his Kansas City song in the musical Oklahoma, but I see a lot in a very short time. The next time I go to Kansas City will most likely be when the Cubs play there again, but it’s worth the trip just to meet Bob Kendrick and see the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. And while you’re there, order the burnt ends and see some hair art.

Kansas City has always been a jumping-off point, but I’m not so sure about that anymore. Maybe it will be again someday, but in the meantime, it’s the home of the sidewalk to nowhere.

Sidewalk to nowhere
Danny Rockett