Negro Leagues Exhibit Goes on Nationwide Tour

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Exhibits from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are touring the country in a mobile trailer, with photos, videos and memorabilia. The trailer, visiting 30 cities, stopped at New York's Shea Stadium on Sunday, when the Mets were honoring the Negro Leagues. Legendary player, scout and coach Buck O'Neil, 94, is traveling with the exhibit.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

At the end of July, 17 players and executives from the Negro Leagues will be inducted into baseballs' Hall of Fame. These players and many others are already celebrated at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. And now, a small part of that museum is coming to you in a mobile trailer visiting many of the nation's ballparks.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

Buck O'Neill, who played and coached in the Negro Leagues until 1955, is almost 95 years old. He was the first African-American to coach in the Major Leagues for the Chicago Cubs. He sits on a picnic bench outside Shea Stadium in Queens, New York, a baseball and a pen in his hand.

Mr. BUCK O'NEILL (Player and Coach for the Negro Leagues): I'm autographing for kids here, they always will remember that. This is why we've got the Negro League baseball museum, so we can tell them this story.

ADLER: Carl Meirich(ph) brought his son Jerome, and is getting an autographed baseball from Robert Paige, son of the great pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige.

Mr. CARL MEIRICH: Well, you know, I just wanted him to get a chance to meet some of the old timers and see that there was baseball even back in the old days.

ADLER: The truth is that while most Americans have heard of Jackie Robinson breaking the color bar in 1947 and the beginning of the integration of the Major League, most have limited knowledge of the great ball players of the Negro League.

Buck O'Neill ticks off remarkable players.

Mr. O'NEILL: Satchel Paige, Hall of Famer. Hilton Smith, Hall of Famer. Willie Foster, one of the greatest pitchers that ever lived.

ADLER: And how many of the guys O'Neill played are alive today?

Mr. O'NEILL: Not many. Before Jackie Robinson, it might be about five of us left.

ADLER: Who were the people that you want kids growing up today to really know?

Mr. O'NEILL: I want them to know this history, but actually, I'm a baseball man. So I want them to know these guys that are playing out here today.

ADLER: And he points to the stadium yards away where the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants are about to take the field. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City has done a lot to bring the history of the Negro Leagues to the public, but not everyone can come to Kansas City, so the museum -together with the Roadway trucking company - has created a mobile museum in a trailer that is making the rounds of the nation's ballparks.

Inside the trailer are all kinds of memorabilia from the 1920s to the 1960s when the Negro Leagues ended. By that time, there were African-American ball players on every Major League team. There's a smattering of films, statues, gloves, cleats, and the kiosks with exhibits have the same chicken wire that's a motif at the museum in Kansas City, used because it has a double meaning. It was a backstop in many old ball fields, but it also was used to segregate white and black sections of stadiums. There is also a life-sized statue Satchel Paige that looks eerily real, says Robert Paige, his son.

Mr. ROBERT PAIGE (Son of Leroy “Satchel” Paige): It's a very close likeness of him. Only in his latter years, he put a little bit more girth than the statue, but it is a tremendous tribute.

ADLER: Raymond Doswell, the curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, points to a section that shows all the great Major League players who started out in the Negro Leagues.

Mr. RAYMOND DOSWELL (Curator, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum): Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella.

ADLER: It's an entry point, he says. People them learn of lesser-known players, but there's much more here.

Mr. DOSWELL: They also learn that the leagues themselves were maybe a little bit more vast than they thought, originally. There were, perhaps, 30 different communities that had over 75 teams - not all playing at the same time, but probably during the hey day of the leagues, there were maybe 12 to 16 teams operating, playing against each other.

ADLER: Many cities had black communities to support these teams. And sometimes the teams played white teams in small communities, beginning an experiment in integration. When asked about that history of segregation, Buck O'Neill said baseball did a lot better than the rest of the society. The mobile trailer will make about 20 more stops at American ballparks this summer.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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