Archive for Wednesday, March 26, 2003

A baseball gem

Tonganoxie players learn history at Negro Leagues Museum

March 26, 2003

A lineup of baseball greats have taken the field. There's Satchel Paige on the mound. Buck O'Neil looks on from the dugout. Don't forget James "Cool Papa" Bell, tabbed the fastest man in baseball.

They're in the ballpark with eight other baseball players, shining as life-size bronze statues in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

As O'Neil peers out from beyond the field, he looks through a fence behind home plate.

That screen is made of chicken wire, symbolizing segregation.

"It was used to separate blacks and whites," a tour guide said.

The segregation tactic took some Tonganoxie baseball players by surprise, as it did THS coach Sean Randall.

"That's something I didn't even know," Randall said. "That kind of actually shocked me."

The news was fresh for Randall, but the museum is not. The baseball enthusiast made his fourth trip to the Kansas City, Mo., exhibit last Wednesday when he took his baseball team to the museum at 18th and Vine.

"Baseball's been my whole life," said Randall, who has played in the collegiate ranks and then umpired in the minor leagues.

The first-year coach always has been a baseball fan, but his interest in the Negro Leagues was sparked in 1994 while watching the PBS documentary "Baseball" by Ken Burns. A specific chapter of the documentary centered on Negro League baseball. Stories from former player Buck O'Neil, who is the chairman of the museum's board, sparked Randall's interest the most.

"He just draws people to him," Randall said of O'Neil, who is known today for his public speaking. "He always ends with a song."

O'Neil, whom Randall has met three times, had a lifetime average of .288, including four .300-plus seasons. In 1946, the Kansas City Monarchs first baseman led the league with a .353 mark and posted his career best average the next year with a .358 clip, according to the museum's Web site.

O'Neil also became the major league's first black coach when he joined the Chicago Cubs staff in 1962. He later was credited with signing hall-of-famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock to pro contracts.

The popular O'Neil had a major hand in establishing the nation's only museum honoring the Negro Leagues, which were first created in 1920 and finally folded in the early 1960s. In January 1991, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum first opened in Kansas City, Mo., at its current location. It later expanded to a 10,000-square-foot exhibit, complete with a small theater that shows a short documentary narrated by James Earl Jones. The complex also has a jazz museum.

The baseball exhibit takes visitors on a timeline of both African American and Negro League history. A United States map greets exhibit-goers when they enter the museum. It shows that the Negro Leagues never stretched to the West Coast. In fact, Kansas City was about the western-most city to run a team.

The museum was an impressive sight for THS senior Chuck Riddle, who made his first visit to the exhibit last week.

"It's kind of cool that it's the only one of its kind in the United States and it's right here," Riddle said.

Tonganoxie baseball players might get more chances to view the museum in the future.

Randall hopes to make the trip a tradition for his team, even if it is limited to incoming players each year.

The former umpire said he has a deep passion for the game, along with a fair collection of Negro League memorabilia.

That hobby apparently seeped over to his current squad, which will don new baseball hats that resemble former Kansas City Monarchs baseball caps.

"I just love the game," Randall said.

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