Day 44: Kansas City, MO to Grand Junction, CO, 8.1.15
One Pack. No Turning Back.
Number of miles driven today: 861 (a new high for the trip)
Total miles driven on road trip: 9,984
Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Starbucks is rolling to victory
Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 25-16-2.
Dunkin' Donuts' record: 16-25-2
Cheapest gas I saw today: $2.43
Number of states visited overall: 28
Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 13 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas)
Number of blue states visited overall: 15 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado)
Most unusual freeway sign: Salina, KS, home to the 2nd Friendliest Yarn Store in the Universe
Second most unusual freeway sign: Home of the World's Largest Czech Egg
When you walk into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, you quickly come upon a familiar scene--a replica baseball diamond, its size reduced for convenience, with life-size bronze statues at every position.
This is a team of baseball's all-time greats: Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston.
Sound familiar? Didn't think so.
These men should be household names. They were the first 10 black players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame whose accomplishments came mainly in the Negro Leagues (Hall of Famers like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron also played in the Negro Leagues but earned their induction through their Major League exploits). They were treated as separate and unequal.
The scoreboard lists two teams, East and West, recognizing the annual Negro League All-Star Game. The bases, bright white and raised high, beckon.
Your first impulse is to rush on to the field, to get up close to the statues to examine the expressions of concentration meticulously frozen on their faces.
But you can't. All the way around the field runs a fence, chest-high. You can only access the exhibit once you've walked through the entire museum.
"You have to earn that right," explained Bob Kendrick, leaning against the fence. He started at the museum as a volunteer back in 1993, rising all the way to president. His voice was hoarse from too many meetings, but his presence was vital and undiminished. He was rakishly dressed, with a fedora and tweed suit cloaking a yellow undershirt, a green handkerchief neatly folded in his breast pocket.
"We segregate you from the field to give you an idea of what it felt like. You have to bear witness to all the injustice that they endured. Only then have you earned the right to take the field with ten of the baddest brothers to ever play the game," he said.
I'm ashamed to admit that the museum was not on my original itinerary, despite the baseball purpose of this road trip. I had a vague sense of it being in Kansas City but had not felt compelled to go.
Rick Sutcliffe changed my mind.
Almost all of Sut's many trophies and plaques are displayed downstairs in his Lee's Summit home. The exception is a modest slab of marble topped by the visage of Buck O'Neil, one of the founders of the museum and a former Negro Leaguer (and the first black coach in the Major Leagues). It is the the Legacy award given in his name to those who have made significant contributions to the Negro Leagues Museum; it is also one of Sut's proudest achievements, sitting on a black dresser next to his keys.
"Have you been to the museum?" he asked me.
When I said no, he whipped out his phone and started punching keys.
"You have to go. Really, it's one of those experiences that will move you," he said, dialing. A voice picked up.
"Bob, Rick Sutcliffe here. I have a buddy here working on this really neat book project, and I'm going to send him over to see you."
Sut was right. I took my time poring through the displays, arranged in chronological order starting with baseball's early 19th-century origins. On the upper panels were photographs, text boxes, and artifacts of African-Americans' history in baseball; lower down ran a timeline of American history. I learned as much general history as baseball history. For example, I was disappointed that it took 34 years for me to know the name John Rock, the first African-American admitted to the Supreme Court. That should have been in my sixth-grade social studies textbook.
Walking through a history shrouded by hate and fear, I thought back to my own experiences on this trip--Garry Templeton telling me about growing up in Jim Crow Texas, forced to drink at separate water fountains; Templeton detailing to me how he was punished for being an outspoken black player in St. Louis in the 1970s; Richie Hebner describing the shock of seeing teammate Dave Cash barred from staying at the same hotel while playing for the Salem Rebels in 1966; Rance Mulliniks being asked in his first year in the minor leagues if he minded having a black roommate.
To think that something as trivial as the melanin content of your skin could cause so much pain and anguish.
I asked Kendrick if he had a single exhibit or item in the museum that stood out as his favorite. He led me into the 1950s to a photograph of a young black man in front of a railroad station, his hands clasped behind his back, a suitcase at his feet, his face sullen, scared even.
"Do you know who that is?" he asked.
I did not.
"That's a young Henry Aaron leaving Mobile, Alabama in 1952," he said. Aaron played a season with the Indianapolis Clowns before being signed into the Major Leagues.
"That photo is the validation point for our guests. All of a sudden, he validates all the other guys [in the Negro Leagues] because few people know that he came out of the Negro Leagues," Kendrick explained.
Boarding that train, Aaron could never have imagined where it would take him. Seven-hundred and fifty-five home runs. That was a number I had committed to memory long before my multiplication tables.
Having earned the right after a couple of hours in the museum, I stepped on to the field with Cool Papa Bell and the others with a new-found respect for what they endured.
And now, long overdue, their legacy endures.
For older blog entries, click here.