One museum at a time

There are two baseball museums that every fan should visit. Oddly, one is in upstate New York and the other's in Kansas City, Mo. Of course you know about the former. But maybe not the latter: the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is really the only place -- other than a book, anyway -- where you can learn much of anything about black baseball.

That may change, though, if some people back East get their way:

    Here's a wake-up call for supporters of Kansas City's Negro Leagues Baseball Museum:

    The city fathers in Baltimore are backing a $4.1 million plan to build a Negro League museum there to draw tourists and rejuvenate a section of the town.

    The plan, which has already been approved by the Baltimore mayor, would create the first East Coast museum devoted to the Negro Leagues. The city was once home to the Baltimore Elite Giants.


    Meanwhile, back in Kansas City, the Negro League museum is mulling ways to become financially sound and to boost attendance at the site in the historic 18th & Vine jazz area.

    The possibility of a second Negro Leagues museum raises questions: Does the country really need two similar museums? Would the group's be tackling the same donor base? Is there any danger of losing some of the precious artifacts and exhibits here to Baltimore?

First, let me be very clear ... I've got dozens of those books about the Negro Leagues (and I've even read a few of them). I'm a member of SABR's Negro Leagues Committee. And every time I'm in Kansas City, I pay my respects at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I'm one of their guys.

I'm just afraid that there aren't enough of us. I've been to the museum four or five times, sometimes on weekends and sometimes not. With one exception -- when a busload of Little Leaguers showed up -- the museum has always felt mostly deserted. This should not be particularly surprising. The big museum in Cooperstown can feel like that, too, particularly in the dead of winter. But Cooperstown gets crazy in the summer, and I'm afraid it never gets crazy at 18th & Vine. In the summer, it just gets hot and sticky.

In the same building, on the other side of the entry hall from Negro Leagues Museum, sits the American Jazz Museum. That place always feels deserted, too. It's both fitting and sad that both museums are under one roof. Both exist to celebrate two of my deepest passions. Both celebrate great American stories that are populated mostly by black men. And both, I'm terribly sorry to report, seem so ill-attended that I worry about their long-term survival.

Which is not particularly surprising. Great jazz records are released every week, but nobody's buying them. The average age of the jazz fan is, what, something well north of 50? Meanwhile, it's been many decades since a future Hall of Famer played in the Negro Leagues. People keep traveling the long road to Cooperstown because every summer the story is refreshed with new Hall of Famers and new artifacts -- the bats and the balls and the gloves and the bases and all the rest -- of historic accomplishments.

When is the last time the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum added something that will draw fans to Kansas City? When will the Museum add something, again? Most of the good stuff is long gone, and most of the rest is held by private collectors. And even if the Museum could somehow acquire, say, Josh Gibson's and Satchel Paige's old Monarchs uniforms, who would come to see them?

I just sent $100 to Kansas City. I wish there were more of us.