Negro Leagues Museum president inspires at MASM Beisbol exhibit
The Beisbol Traveling Exhibit went on display at the Mid-America Science Museum Wednesday.
Members of the community, National Park College’s baseball team and children were in attendance as speaker Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, reached the podium.
“I am honored to be back in Hot Springs to be at this amazing facility to bring one of our traveling exhibitions to Hot Springs,” Kendrick said. “This is something that others and I have talked about for the last several years and it is good when you dream about possibilities and how dreams can manifest themselves. They become reality, and that is exactly what has happened.”
Beisbol will be on display until April 11. The exhibit tells the story of Negro Leagues players and their journeys through Mexico and Central America.
“The exhibit that we brought in was a brainchild of mine from the early 2000s,” Kendrick said. “I came up with this idea that it would be a proper thing to share the bond between the Negro Leagues and Spanish-speaking countries. Our game is a global game believe it or not in large part because of the Negro Leagues.”
Beisbol is the Spanish spelling of the word baseball, and the exhibit is written bilingually in English and Spanish to give respect to the players’ stories.
“Negro League players were often the first Americans to play in Spanish speaking countries,” Kendrick said. “When we went to those countries we were often treated like heroes. They were staying in the finest hotels, restaurants that those countries had to offer and then you come back home to be treated like a second-class citizen.”
In the United States, Spanish athletes could not play in the Major Leagues. This formed a bond between Negro League players and Spanish baseball players. In the Negro Leagues everyone was welcome. There were four women who played on professional Negro League teams.
“They found sanctuary playing in the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said. “I will never forget my late friend, the great Hall of Famer Monte Irvin. He said the first time he went to Mexico he never felt freer in his entire life. It was the first time he ever felt like his natural self.”
Kendrick said when Orestes Miñoso walked into the room, it lit up. Miñoso hailed from Cuba. He passed up more lucrative opportunities so he could play in the Negro Leagues. He was searching for the American dream. He thought it was the pathway for him to get to the Major Leagues. This happened after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and Miñoso ended up playing for the Chicago White Sox.
“Josh Gibson, who they call the Black Babe Ruth, he also spring trained here in Hot Springs when he was with the Homestead Grays,” Kendrick said. “I tell people all the time his steroids were ham hocks and collard greens. The man was country strong. He was amazing. If you remember Bo Jackson and you want to get an understanding of the physique of Josh Gibson, think Bo Jackson as a catcher.”
In 1936, Gibson hit 84 home runs in a single season. He had a lifetime batting average of .354, and his average was .420 for his MLB career.
“Josh Gibson, many will say that Babe Ruth is the White Josh Gibson,” Kendrick said. “Gibson fellas, was incredible. Gibson has strings of 75, 71 and 69 home runs in single seasons. He is still believed to be the only man to hit a ball completely out of Yankee Stadium. He hit one in the Polo Grounds in New York that they estimated to travel over 600 feet. Folks, he swung a 40-ounce, 41-inch bat.”
Kendrick told a story about Roberto Clemente’s connection with Irvin.
He said Puerto Rico’s Clemente idolized the great Irvin as a young ballplayer. Irvin was a superstar player in the Negro Leagues and as a kid, Clemente would carry Irvin’s uniform in for him. When someone carried a ball player’s uniform, that person got in the game for free. Irvin was a five-tool player.
“This is the romantic nature of baseball,” Kendrick said. “It is by far the most romanticized sport of them all. After Clemente tragically dies in that plane accident taking supplies to Nicaragua after the earthquake, they waived the five-year rule for him to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Who does he go into the Hall of Fame with? Monte Irvin. That’s baseball. He goes in with his idol.”
Kendrick shared stories of Martín Dihigo (El Maestro or The Master), who played all nine positions and is the only person inducted into five countries’ Halls of Fame, including Cooperstown. Dihigo won the pitching title and went 18-2, pitching with a 0.90 ERA. He won the batting title, hitting .387 the same season.
“A lot of the Negro League players did not talk a lot about what they had done,” Kendrick said. “It has only been over the last 20 plus years have they finally started to gain the notoriety that they so sorely deserved so many years prior to that.
“We are at a time where there are only a handful of these players left now. They are like World War II vets. A lot of them were WWII vets. What stood at risk was this amazing story of triumph over adversity was going to die when we lost that last Negro League player. We cannot let that happen; you see their story is too powerful to lose to time. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum does not need to survive, it has to survive.”
Other legends such as the great Satchel Paige, Leroy Matlock, James Thomas ‘Cool Papa’ Bell and Gibson, in 1937, left the Negro Leagues for the Dominican Republic, only to return the next season after winning the championship.
Bell is regarded as the fastest player to ever play baseball. Bell was clocked running home-to-home in 12 seconds. Bell cut the bag on the inside with his left foot.
“Sometimes you have to accept that the good lord gives us something that he does not give all of us,” Kendrick said, “and he gave Cool that blazing speed.”
Kendrick said the Negro League players played baseball differently.
“It was bold, daring,” he said. “They would bunt on, steal second, third and if you weren’t too smart, they would steal home. As my friend Buck O’Neil would say, ‘You couldn’t go to the concession stand because you might miss something that you have not seen before.’ The Major Leaguers would accuse them of showboating. As Buck would say, ‘If you got something to show, show it and it is only showboating when they cannot do it.’ They did play the game differently.”
Kendrick took the time to share baseball stories of Hall of Famers with the children at the event.
“A lot of Negro League players would actually call Spanish-speaking countries home,” Kendrick said. “For one simple reason. In those countries we were not black baseball players, we were just baseball players. That is all we ever wanted to be.”
Kendrick said he always enjoys his time in the Spa City.
“This is the fifth time I have been in Hot Springs,” he said. “One time just to come out and play golf and the other times to come in and speak.”
Kendrick said his all-time favorite baseball player is Henry “Hank” Aaron.
Aaron has a field named after him at Majestic Park in Hot Springs and is one of the few Negro League players who would eventually play at the area that is now Majestic Park after the color barrier was broken.
“It makes me feel wonderful because that chapter of baseball history hadn’t often times been talked about,” Kendrick said. “We know a lot more about Major Leaguers who came down to the Springs to spring train, but the Nego Leaguers came down and spring trained as well. They were doing the exact same thing, taking advantage of the therapeutic waters to help in their recuperation as well from the rigors of training. That warms my heart to see the field named for Henry Aaron.”