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November 10, 2011 at 8:53 am ET
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Celebrating Buck: A B&C Interview with Bob Kendrick — Part II

In the final part of a two-part interview, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick discusses the upcoming festitives planned for what would have been Buck O’Neil’s 100th birthday, the museum’s aspirations for growth, why next year’s All-Star Game is critical, and tries to answer why O’Neil has yet to be enshrined at Cooperstown.

To the loyal and learned B&C reader, Bob Kendrick:

What are some of the celebrations and events that the Negro Leagues Museum will be putting on in honor of what would have been Buck’s 100th birthday on November 13?

It really jump-started with the opening of our new exhibit on the life of Buck here at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. We opened on October 6 a free exhibit that chronicles the life of Buck O’Neil, and is accentuated with wonderful, original works of art inspired by Buck. It’s an absolutely amazing exhibition, I’m really happy. It also features (Buck’s) Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the first time it’s been on public display, so we really appreciate the O’Neil family allowing us to bring that to Kansas City so folks would have an opportunity to experience what is certainly one of the most meaningful recognitions that any American citizen can get, it’s the highest civilian honor that anyone can get. And, of course, President George W. Bush bestowed that upon Buck in December of 2006, he had died, of course then, but we were all very excited about that, and I got the opportunity to participate in a White House ceremony.

On November 11, all of the Kansas City-area First Watch restaurants are donating 100 percent of their profits to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in celebration of Buck’s 100th birthday. So we’re encouraging people, if you are in the metropolitan Kansas City area, to stop at one of those area First Watch restaurants, have a great breakfast or lunch and support the Negro Leagues Museum at the same time. There will be members of the Kansas City Royals alumni making appearances at select restaurants on November 11, so we’re really appreciative of that.

On Saturday morning, November 12 at 8 a.m. we will have the second-annual Buck O’Neil 2.2 mile run / walk. It starts at the site of the old Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, which is also the birthplace of the Negro Leagues, and winds its way through historic 18th and Vine where the museum operates and, of course, culminates at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

We’re also doing what we call Buck O’Neil’s Baseball Family Reunion at 11 o’clock Saturday morning, the 12th, and it will include both Negro League and former major league players who will discuss the impact that Buck had on their lives and baseball careers. There will be an autograph signing session, and then we’ll come back that evening for the birthday tribute, a salute to Buck, which we’re really happy and excited about. It will be a spoken-word salute to Buck hosted by actor / comedian Anthony Anderson.

And then on Sunday, we finally close out the Buck O’Neil 100th birthday celebration with a gospel salute to Buck. And as I mentioned earlier, Buck spent the better part of 16 years going all over the country, preaching the gospel of the Negro Leagues, so I think it’s very fitting that his 100th birthday celebration will culminate with a gospel salute that will be free to the public at the Jim Theatre, which is directly across the street from the museum. So the public will be able to come down and hear some great gospel music with people reflecting on the impact of Buck’s life and what it meant to not only to the city of Kansas City, but to our country.

And, of course, as you well know, we have our grass roots, fund-raising campaign going on in celebration and memory of Buck, our $100-for-100 campaign, where we’re trying to convince at least one thousand people to donate $100 in memory and celebration of Buck’s 100th birthday, and of course, in support of the museum. The caveat here is that for every person who makes at least a $100 contribution, they will have their name or the person they designates name permanently recognized at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as part of our new Buck O’Neil All-Century team wall that we will unveil after this campaign is over. There’s a lot of stuff happening in memory of ol’ Buck and his 100th, and we hope will come out and find something that they want to be engaged and involved with, so we’re encouraging people to go to our website nlbm.com and consider making that $100 contribution, if you can’t make that $100 contribution, make a donation in memory of Buck. Help us keep the legacy of not only Buck O’Neil, but all of the other legendary Negro Leaguers alive.

Tell us about the John “Buck” O’Neil Education and Research Center.

Oh man, it’s an exciting project. It’s a tremendous expansion project, for those who might not be aware that the Paseo YMCA was the birthplace of the Negro Leagues, that is where Rube Foster and a contingent of eight independent black baseball owners met in 1920 to establish the Negro National League. That building still stands, so we’ve designated that building as the future home of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, an incredible expansion of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. We’ve capped out of space, so in order for this organization to continue to grow and find cutting edge and innovative ways to relate its history, particularly to this new generation and future generations, we need to increase space. So to be able to take our operations into the very building that gave birth to the story that we are now in charge of preserving and celebrating is absolutely amazing. We’ve started the process of restoring the building with the help of barbecue baron Ollie Gates, who lives in here in Kansas City, and has done an extraordinary job of championing that effort. We’ve done the external work, and now we’re geared to do the interior design, and so we hope within the next three years to have this building functioning and open and reaching people with this story world-wide, so we’re really excited about the prospect of the future Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center.

Beyond the Buck O’Neil exhibits and celebrations, what other features will the museum be featuring as baseball moves into the off-season?

Typically things will slow down, but given what we’ve got now, we’ll move right out of this 100th birthday celebration into our Legacy Awards, which are scheduled for January 28, 2012. The Legacy Awards annually honor major league players, managers and executives with awards named for Negro League legends, and it’s an exciting national awards event, which is a big deal for the museum because, again what we are trying to do is bridge that gap between the Negro Leagues and major league baseball and continually working to create a relationship between current major league baseball players, and this is the only event of its kind that celebrates the history of the Negro Leagues or the heritage of the game. And, of course, the All-Star Game is coming, which has put a whole point of emphasis on the planning necessary to try to maximize what we think is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with Kansas City hosting the 2012 All-Star Game. So there’s not a whole lot of down time even though this would typically be a slower period for us, we’re going to be running full-throttle with a lot of opportunities that we want to make sure that we’re in position to completely maximize, the All-Star Game is a tremendous opportunity for our museum.

Has there been any conversation with the Kansas City Royals, we know that they’ve worked closely with the Negro Leagues Museum in the past, but to really honor the Negro Leagues at this All-Star Game with something specific?

We’ve been having conversations with both the Kansas City Royals, as well as major league baseball, and actually, everybody’s on the same page relative to the fact that it will be difficult to come to Kansas City and not have the Negro Leagues be a central part of baseball’s celebration at its midsummer classic. I think the thing now is trying to figure out what those roles are going to be, we’re pushing as hard as we possibly can to ensure that those roles are as significant as we can possibly make them. We want to be a vital part of making Kansas City’s celebration of the All-Star Game, I think, one of the most unique celebrations in All-Star Game history. And I really think that our city will do an extraordinary job of hosting the All-Star Game, because really this is the only place that you can come and bring that history. You well understand the impact that the Negro Leagues had on major league baseball, and part of what we will do is try to make sure that everybody else understands this tremendous impact that the Negro Leagues had, and so we’re opening up a new exhibit on June 15, that will celebrate those guys who left the Negro Leagues and went into the major leagues who became future major league All-Stars, and I think that will help in some ways with baseball folks, understanding the immediate impact that the Negro Leagues had on major league baseball with just that handful of guys who went over from 1947 to 1959.

Major League Baseball often has throwback weekends which honor the game’s past, including contests donning Negro League uniforms. Any possibility that the All-Star participants could wear honorable jerseys rather than the traditional home white and road greys?

There actually has been some discussion, and we’re trying to determine what might be the best fit in this case. Obviously, there are a lot of variables that go into play, and All-Star gear is such a heavily merchandised kind of thing, so there are a lot of considerations that go into play. But with the plethora of All-Star events and activities, we certainly believe that there might be a fit for the Negro Leagues in one of those specific areas, and we’re still trying to determine what that might be. But I certainly think that we can get some of these folks in Negro League stuff when they come to Kansas City, the birthplace of the Negro Leagues, home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and when you start talking about names like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Monte Irvin, these are some of the biggest names in major league baseball history. Fortunately, they are still with us, and it makes it, I think, very appropriate that the Negro Leagues be a central part of this kind of celebration.

I’ve been searching for the answer to my next question for a very long time, so perhaps you can shed some light: Why is John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil not enshrined at the Hall of Fame yet?

 (Laughing) I wish I had the answer. I honestly don’t know. Obviously, the committee that was put together in 2006 to address Negro Leaguers going into the Hall of Fame, and at that point in time there were 35 Negro Leaguers on the ballot they would choose from, and for whatever reason that committee did not elect Buck O’Neil. It is believed that he missed by one single vote, and the door in all probablity is closed, not only on Buck, but on the Negro Leagues in general. I think that was going to be the final effort to get all the guys in that deserved to be in, and unfortunately Buck did not get that coronation. Five years ago, I was very disheartened by the result of that election, as many people across this country were, but we all watched Buck handle that disappointment so gracefully and with so much class and dignity, and here were are five years later and what I realize, and I commend the Hall of Fame for what they did do in coming back and creating the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award and erecting a life-size, bronze sculpture of Buck O’Neil at the Hall of Fame because that was tremendously significant. They could have not done anything, because the public had voiced their opinion on the whole situation and the Hall could have just said “OK, we heard you but our decision is our decision,” but they didn’t, they came back and did something that was very significant and in some ways, as it relates to the museum, perhaps been even more beneficial than had Buck gotten into the Hall of Fame. All of us who were fans of Buck O’Neil, we wanted to celebrate with our guy, we wanted to high-five Buck’s hand and hug and do all those things, and we were all deflated when that opportunity didn’t happen, and of course now that he’s passed on, any subsequent recognition of that nature is not quite the same. But we still believe that there are some Negro League players, Buck included, who deserve to be in the Hall, and I just don’t know if that opportunity is really ever going to emerge.

Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, thanks for taking a few moments of your time with us, we really appreciate it, it’s been a lot of fun.

Hey man, my pleasure, anytime. Thanks so much for having me on.

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