Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common. Satchel Paige
If you are ever visiting Kansas City, make sure to visit the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum on East 18th Street (it is next door to the American Jazz Museum, so it’s a great chance to kill two birds with one stone). From the late nineteenth century to 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, African-Americans were informally banned from playing major league baseball. Jim Crow laws and pervasive racism kept the majors all white, and denied black ballplayers the economic and social benefits of playing at their sport at the highest level. But as with so many areas of cultural achievement, African-Americans turned a negative into a positive by creating their own leagues, their own brand of exciting play (which has enormously influenced the modern game), and a history that is both uniquely black and uniquely American.
The Negro Baseball Leagues Museum pays tribute to this achievement. And it is fitting that the museum is in Kansas City. A key moment in the history of black baseball was a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in KC in 1920, when the Negro National League was formed in the Midwest under the guidance of owner and former player Rube Foster. Soon, rival leagues formed in Eastern and Southern states, and black baseball became a countrywide phenomenon.
The most successful African-American team of the new league and one of the greatest teams ever to play baseball was the Kansas City Monarchs, who won ten league championships before integration and triumphed in the first Negro League World Series in 1924. The Monarchs featured such stars as Hilton Smith, Bullet Rogan, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson. After Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the Monarchs would send more players to the major leagues than any other Negro League franchise, until the team was disbanded in 1965.
David Halberstam’s book October 1964 tells the story of the 1964 World Series, when the upstart St. Louis Cardinals beat the mighty New York Yankees. The Yankees had been the last team in the majors to accept black players on to their roster, whereas the Cards had a progressive, racially integrated team. It was an important moment for African-Americans, and one that built on the achievements of the great black teams of the first half of the twentieth century.