(The Root) — The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum didn't exist in 1973 when Major League Baseball held the All-Star Game in Kansas City, Mo. Founded in 1990, the shrine to pre-integration baseball narrowly survived long enough to be resuscitated this week when the All-Star Game returned to town. Thanks to smarter management and better leadership over the last 15 months — after four years of strife and financial woes that almost shuttered the institution — the NLBM was ready for its close-up when the baseball world descended on Kansas City.
As museum President Bob Kendrick said heading into the four-day slate of All-Star activities: "We've got one shot. It ain't like we get a dress rehearsal. We just need to get this thing right."
By most accounts, the NLBM hit a home run, possibly exposing more people to the facility this week than in its 22 years combined. It hosted everyone from frequent guests such as Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard to first-time visitors such as MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.
"A wonderful day, for me to walk around here and see what the Negro Leagues did and what they meant to baseball," Selig said Monday after his grand tour. "I love the presentation of history. This has been terrific — very educational, really. Some of baseball's greatest players started in the Negro Leagues. Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson … those players paved the way for players today, like Matt Kemp, Curtis Granderson, Adam Jones and Prince Fielder."
The museum, which shares space with the American Jazz Museum, is located in the historic 18th and Vine Street district, a cradle of African-American culture from the late 1920s to early 1960s. The building is near the place where Andrew "Rube" Foster spearheaded the organization of the first professional Negro League in 1920. Foster's life-size bronze sculpture is one of 12 featured at the museum, which also include Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell.
Plenty of living legends flocked to the place this week. Hall of Famers Aaron, Frank Robinson and Dave Winfield took part in a fundraising brunch Sunday, the same day the museum unveiled a new exhibit: "They Were All Stars" tells the story of the 20 players who played in the Negro Leagues and later became Major League All-Stars, a list that includes Aaron, Mays, Robinson and Ernie Banks.
"The exhibit is really an all-encompassing one," Kendrick said. "It has a lot of different elements to it — and, of course, the story of those 20 Negro Leaguers who broke barriers themselves, who showed that these athletes could play the game as well as anyone, as the centerpiece of this exhibition."
Kendrick made sure a full slate of activities was available for officials, players and fans, among the expected 120,000 visitors to Kansas City this week.
Sharon Robinson, the daughter of Jackie Robinson (who in 1947 broke baseball's color barrier, sparking the civil rights movement and essentially ending the Negro Leagues), had a book signing and charity barbecue on Saturday. Howard, the Phillies slugger, hosted a party Monday night. Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Tony Gwynn spoke at the museum on Tuesday, as did Ron Rabinovitz, who spent his childhood exchanging letters with Jackie Robinson.
Kendrick expected All-Star week to bring in about $500,000, which would go a long way toward the $2 million the museum needs to relocate from its cramped space to the 40,000-square-foot YMCA building where Foster became the "father of black baseball." The museum receives financial assistance from MLB, and players make donations as well, but Kendrick hopes that the recent dose of publicity will lead to increased, sustained contributions from a wider swath of baseball fans and American-history fans.
"I am just thrilled with the visibility that the museum is getting," he said. "Certainly Major League Baseball and the [Kansas City] Royals and the city have done a wonderful job of helping push the museum out front and center, and we're seeing the response as a result of that."