KANSAS CITY, MO. — YOU don't have to be a baseball fan to know that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier - the unwritten rule that barred blacks from playing in America's major leagues - when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But even avid fans know little or nothing about the rich culture of black baseball that preceded the Robinson era by 50 years and even flourished before the color line was drawn in the late 1800s. The Negro Leagues, composed of all-black teams, produced some of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Or, sadly, not seen: Until recently, little attention has been paid to these players.
A group of baseball professionals in Kansas City, Mo., is looking to change that. These historians, archivists, authors, and former Negro League players and managers are working toward opening a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum here in 1992. The project will be formally launched at a reception Feb. 13, the anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League here in 1920.
``It's something that should have been done years ago,'' says John (Buck) O'Neil, former player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, ``because when we're dead, that's the end of it. That's why we need a museum. And, fortunately, the time is right.''
That feeling is echoed by Jim LaMarque, a pitcher for the Monarchs in the 1940s: ``It's good for the younger generation; they need to know their history. Now it's only fathers and grandfathers who remember us.''
The museum will be devoted to preserving, researching, and disseminating the story of black baseball, and to honoring the thousands of men who played. If they succeed, names like Rube Foster, Cool Papa Bell, and the Homestead Grays will be as legendary as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The project's director is W.Lloyd Johnson, a former historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. The board of directors includes the likes of Ernie Banks, former Chicago Cub and member of the Hall of Fame; Frank White, an 18-year veteran of the Kansas City Royals; and Branch Rickey III, grandson of Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers who altered the course of baseball history when he signed Jackie Robinson.
Mr. Johnson says exhibits planned for the museum include a nine-foot-high statue of Leroy (Satchel) Paige - easily the most well-known Negro Leaguer - throwing his famous ``hesitation pitch.'' There will be uniforms, equipment, photographs, and more on display. Museum planners hope to obtain one of the league's team buses: The team bus, which often served as hotel and locker room, has come to symbolize the hard travel and grueling life of the black ballplayer.
Barnstorming black teams
Black teams supplemented their meager wages by barnstorming, interspersing league contests with exhibition games. On days off, teams might travel hundreds of miles to take on anyone they could, from black teams unaffiliated with a league to white semi-pro and even major league teams.
``We knew we could play the game as well or better than the players in the major leagues,'' says former Monarch O'Neil. The segregation of black players must have hurt, but there was a surprising lack of bitterness expressed by the 10 or so Negro League veterans interviewed for this article.
``It's going to be great,'' said James (Big Mitt) Dillon, who played third base for the Colored House of David, a Minneapolis team. ``I wish it had happened years ago. It will do a lot to make up for all the years we were ignored.''
A research center with a computerized repository of player and league records will be an integral part of the museum. ``The research center is what's going to make the project go,'' says Johnson: ``The museum will bring people in once. The research center will get them to come back.''
The database is the brainchild of Larry Lester, a computer programmer and the treasurer of the museum planning board. Mr. Lester says he has spent virtually all his free time for the last five years traveling the country, searching microfilm copies of old newspapers for articles and box scores of games, and interviewing as many former players as he could locate. He has already compiled an impressive quantity of statistics, although he estimates he has found only about 60 percent of what is available.
The goal is to make the program user-friendly and have it available to patrons of the museum. With a few keystrokes, a visitor might find out how many shutouts Smokey Joe Williams pitched in 1910 or how many grand slams Josh Gibson hit in his career.
But the greatest immediate use of the database is to make a case for inducting more Negro League players into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Phil Dixon is associate director of the museum planning board and co-author of ``Negro Baseball Leagues, 1867-1955,'' scheduled to appear this spring from Amereon House publishers in Mattituck, N.Y.
The Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame is charged with finding old-time players deserving of recognition, but ``It's a joke,'' says Mr. Dixon. The committee ``hasn't helped much in black baseball. Of the 11 [Negro League] players in the Hall of Fame, there are at least 11 others who were better and have been passed over.''
Satchel Paige was the first Negro Leaguer to be so honored, in 1971. Back then, a case for selecting an outstanding baseball veteran could be made on the basis of oral history. ``Oral histories are fantastic,'' says Lester, but now must be supported by statistics to win a place in the Hall of Fame.
``We need unquestionable facts,'' says Dixon. ``Until we can prove that black players excelled on a day-to-day basis, black baseball will not get the credit it deserves.''
``The museum is a beautiful concept,'' says Max Manning, former star pitcher in the Negro Leagues for more than a decade and now a retired schoolteacher in Pleasantville, N.J. ``But no project should obviate the need to get deserving players into the Hall of Fame.'' He is one of about 125 Negro League veterans still alive today.
``We can't afford to wait,'' says Lester. ``We want to honor those who are still living.''
Says Dixon, ``Baseball is not `America's game' until all players can participate in its history. I'm looking forward to our national pastime being truly national.''
Kansas City's greats
Kansas City is not only a center for black baseball scholarship, it is also where the longest-lived Negro league was founded. At a YMCA here in 1920, the owners of seven Midwestern teams met and formed the Negro National League, the first black league to survive a single season. It lasted until 1955, with a two-year hiatus in 1931. The Negro National League was also one of the first entirely black-owned enterprises to operate on a national scale.
The Kansas City Monarchs were one of the league's most successful teams. Some of the greatest names in black baseball history played here, including Satchel Paige, Elston Howard, Chet Brewer, and Ernie Banks. In fact, Jackie Robinson was a promising young shortstop for the Monarchs when he left to join the Brooklyn Dodgers.