Buck O’Neil protege Kendrick has perspective on pandemic
If you didn’t already know the universe had spiraled out of whack, you get the hint walking up to the shuttered entrance of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Jazz Museum. You’d sense the disturbance in the force all the more when NLBM president Bob Kendrick greets you wearing not a customarily striking suit and tie ensemble but a merely classy turtleneck. He hadn’t figured on seeing anybody, after all.
But maybe the most telling sign of the times would be the healthy respect for social distance practiced by one of the most gregarious people you’ll ever meet.
More than most, it distresses Kendrick to not feel able to shake hands or hug or just stand closer to connect with an audience — an absence in his life that has made him ache since the NLBM made the difficult but necessary decision to shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m such a social being that it’s difficult,” he said, with a laugh.
As a disciple of Buck O’Neil and the steward of a museum that stands as a tribute to the perseverance and courage and optimism signified by the Negro Leagues, Kendrick feels called on to be a light of the community. Luckily, the sort of radiance and resilience that’s also the essence of who he is.
Which is part of why we turn to him in times of upheaval, trying to see it through his lens and absorb and convey his warmth and wisdom.
And it accounts for a quite basic but true point he readily makes about these
Yes, the sun keeps coming up. But at least in the Kansas City area, it has been obscure and dim for days and days now. Like “this black cloud just hovering over us,” as Kendrick put it.
“You know, it would help if the sun came out, I swear. I think it really would,” he said. “But this kind of fits the mood that everybody is in. It’s just kind of sat over the top of us and we can’t get out of it, you know? …
“The sun seems to always have a way to make things seem a little better even when they’re still the same as they are. It just feels better.”
It might seem like a little thing, but it’s absolutely true.
And it speaks to a broader point that Kendrick offered.
When I mentioned to him that birds have never sounded louder to me, he understood right away.
“Everything kind of takes on a whole new perspective,” he said. “From a sensory standpoint, you’re just kind of more in tune to virtually everything around you.
“And you know what that does? It gives you a perspective of just how precious the things that we take for granted really are.”
Turns out even the simplest day-to-day things can leave you yearning when they are out of reach or inventory or shut down. And maybe we can hope those resonate more when we have them again.
“I think once we come out of this thing, and we will, I think we all will gain an appreciation for the simple things in life,” he said. “And I hope that we do all embrace that. Because sometimes it takes these kinds of things for us to kind of stop, momentarily, to appreciate.”
As natural as it is for Kendrick to gravitate to the positive view, he is searching for some internal sun himself right now amid all the uncertainty and fear as circumstances become progressively more eerie.
While it’s less than ideal timing for the museum during its year-long plan to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League last month, and such annual fixtures as the Jazz & Jackie (Robinson) program scheduled for April 11 already have been canceled, Kendrick understands that every nonprofit will suffer profoundly right now.
But he’s less mindful of that than a broader and deeper sense of sadness for humanity — one that might feel familiar to others.
“By the time this is all said and done, we all may need a little mental and emotional help,” he said. “I think that’s very real.”
It doesn’t help that one of the time-honored remedies during crises has gone dormant.
“You need to know what’s going on, but I can’t sit there and watch continual coverage of this; you’ve got to kind of pull yourself away from it,” he said. “But the other side of it is, I don’t have sports to watch!
“I love the Game Show Network, but I think I’ve watched every episode of Family Feud.”
So that’s why he’s at the office on this day, with the Jazz Museum shut down altogether and a security guard and one other worker the only people to be seen over the course of an hour.
Of course he could work at home, making phone calls and conducting virtual meetings. And this setting feels more empty emotionally than the feeling he knows when the museum is closed on Mondays.
“Now every day is kind
of like Monday,” he lamented with a laugh. “Most people don’t like Mondays.”
But there remains a vibe of connectivity inside the museum that he finds sustaining.
“I think I needed this for my own peace of mind,” said Kendrick, who spent much of February traveling the country evangelizing the NLBM, but had intended to slow down the pace this month, anyway.
It also brings him some peace of mind to feel the ongoing support from so many lovers of the museum. And to think about what he does so often: What would Buck, the angel on his shoulder, do?
“He’d find a ray of sunshine through this,” Kendrick said. “And he would always have a perspective that I think would make you feel better.”
As we spoke Tuesday and continued the conversation by email Wednesday, we kicked around some thoughts about that nature.
For instance, it was submitted that it may be helpful to think of every day being another day closer to the end of the pandemic — even if, alas, we know it will get worse first and don’t know when that end will come.
“To me, that’s the Buck O’Neil perspective,” he said. “Every day we’re a little closer to this being over, it coming to pass.”
It’s funny about time, of course. We all want more of it, and now, like Kendrick, we all want it to speed up so we can get back to our lives.
Or as Kendrick put it, “Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait!”
Meanwhile, it also seemed apt to bring up the eternal Satchel Paige’s timeless rules for staying young:
“Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood ... If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts … Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move … Go very lightly on the vices, such as carrying on in society, the social ramble ain’t restful …
… Avoid running at all times ... Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
To which Kendrick replied by email, “Satchel’s sage advice to keep us young might even be better served as a reflection to help keep us sane during these crazy times!”
As our time wound down Tuesday, somehow we moved toward the current rotating exhibit on Black Baseball In Living Color.
Next thing you know, Kendrick is pointing out the on-loan ledger book of Negro Leagues founder
Rube Foster and the remarkable art of Graig Kreindler.
And now he’s talking about the life-size Satchel Paige image “brought out of retirement” and reveling in comparing Josh Gibson to Bo Jackson because our friend Joe Posnanski just wrote about the similar sounds in their bats that Buck only ever heard made by one other, Babe Ruth.
We keep our social distance, yes, but …
“For a minute, it felt almost normal again,” he said, laughing.
While we’re all “a little numb” and know we’re still in the early stages of whatever this will be, those minutes are all the more precious.
It’s a little bit like a documentary about the Negro Leagues that came to mind for Kendrick: “There Was Always Sun Shining Someplace.”
And that sun even peeked through for a spell on Wednesday.
“Enough time,” he wrote, “to let us know it’s still there and to give us something else to look forward to.”
Bob Kendrick is president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.