By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has done so many things. Seen so much. They have been hosts to presidents. They have welcomed Hall of Famers. They’ve received checks from baseball stars (though not enough of them), they’ve thrown black-tie galas, and they’ve sung along with The Temptations.
They’ve done so much at the museum. But here’s a new one: They’ve never hosted a major motion picture. Never had to turn people away. Never had to say “no” to money. This is what they call a good problem.
“Right now we’re riding a pretty good high,” museum president Bob Kendrick says. “I even had to turn down corporate sponsors. You know how much that hurt me?”
Financially, this is one of the most important weeks in the museum’s 23-year history, right up there with last summer’s All-Star Game, two presidents’ visits, the reunion in 2000 and anything Buck O’Neil ever did.
Harrison Ford is here, along with his co-star Chadwick Boseman, for a red carpet event for the new “42” movie about baseball star and civil-rights pioneer Jackie Robinson. There is an advance screening of the movie tonight and then a panel discussion led by former Star sportswriter Joe Posnanski.
Tickets sold out almost immediately, more than $10,000 generated within three hours, which put Kendrick in the unprecedented position of turning down corporate money.
Robinson’s story has been told many, many times but never in a modern feature film. For such an important part of our nation’s history, it’s a long time coming. No place in the world has done more to tell the story of baseball’s segregation and then integration than the Negro Leagues museum. It’s only right that the people who made “42” come here before showing the rest of the world.
One can hope that more people will be exposed to that now. One can hope that this can help a Kansas City jewel. The museum is overdue for a break. This story going mainstream can be that break.
It’s easy to think sometimes that if not for Robinson, someone else would have broken baseball’s color barrier. That’s true, but obscures so much. Robinson was chosen for his demeanor (“the guts not to fight back,” as the scene from the trailer puts it) as much as his ability (he won Rookie of the Year in 1947, then MVP in his third season).
If not for the partnership of the level-headed Robinson with forward-thinking Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, there is no telling how long major-league baseball would have abided by the unwritten code of excluding players with dark skin. A year later? Three years? Six? Ten?
Robinson integrated baseball before President Harry Truman integrated the military. Robinson was in his seventh season when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education and a year from retirement when Rosa Parks sat in the front of that bus. By then, Robinson had helped create something like equality in baseball — the percentage of blacks in the game was higher than in the general population.
If not for Robinson, maybe we wouldn’t know Hank Aaron as a major-leaguer. Or Ernie Banks. Or Willie Mays. If the conditions were right for Robinson or someone else to integrate the major leagues sooner, maybe we could have known Oscar Charleston as a major-leaguer. Or Cool Papa Bell. Or Josh Gibson. Maybe we could have known the entire careers of Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin.
Those are all Hall of Famers, each of them with careers substantially impacted — or that could have been impacted — by the integration Robinson brought.
So it’s only right that the Negro Leagues museum can be part of this, only right that Ford is bringing his celebrity and Boseman is donating a uniform he wore during filming. Nobody has done more to emphasize the importance and meaning of what Robinson did than Kendrick and the wonderful staff at the museum.
Now that a movie will tell part of that story to a much bigger audience, the museum is happy for the residual attention.
This place has been through so much. But never this, one of the best weeks in the museum’s history.