Feb. 21—A few weeks into reckoning with the havoc being wreaked by the pandemic, NLBM president Bob Kendrick in a chat last April casually invoked the idea of "Negro Leagues 101."
In resilient defiance of the moment at hand, it was a statement proclaiming a seamless emotional shift from the damage being done to the #NegroLeagues100 campaign.
Even as the COVID-19 coronavirus threatened to douse the centennial celebration years in the making for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, he laughed as he said it.
But the term took hold and resonated with a certain cosmic symmetry:
True to the nature of the institution born here on Feb. 13, 1920, that he holds sacred and helps animate and perpetuate, Kendrick and his staff nimbly adapted to the adversity of the moment and simply reframed the context of the situation.
Back in 1920, there was Rube Foster, leading a meeting of eight independent Black baseball team owners to found the Negro National League in 1920.
With that came a declaration, as Kendrick put it the other day: "You won't let me play with you in the Major Leagues? Then I'll just create a league of my own."
A hundred years later, the parallel went something like this:
A pandemic is going to shut down our museum for weeks and mess with vast plans for national exposure? Then they'll just create intrigue of their own ... with a little help from a lot of friends.
During the course of last year, that was delivered in a remarkably unfazed sequence of tweaked events and achievements such as the "Tipping Your Cap" salute and the Negro Leagues Baseball Centennial Commemorative Coin Act. The NLBM also remained visible and vital in other ways, including an increasing presence as a civil rights and social justice repository and voice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
While Kendrick said the museum had always seen itself that way, he believes that the ripples in the wake of Floyd's death brought this role more to the forefront for the outside world.
"And I think that's added even more value to the museum," he said.
And now, here we are entering into Negro Leagues 101, a concept that the ever-effervescent and self-deprecatory Kendrick outlined at the NLBM on Saturday Feb. 13, a date he likes to call "Independence Day" for baseball.
The 101 notion, he said, stands both for the anniversary and the educational element the term typically represents.
"As I always joked, those 101 courses were what saved me," he said, laughing. "Yeah. Because by the time we got to the three or 400 level, ol' Bob was in trouble ...
"Those 101 courses were those grade-boosting courses that kind of got me through. They didn't require a prerequisite; you didn't have to have any of the knowledge. And that's the same spirit (in which) we're doing this: There's no prerequisite. All that is required is an interest in the subject matter."
In this case, the matter at hand is a new dimension of trying to preserve and convey the rich story "that has escaped the pages of American history books" — much like the broader Black history that the Negro Leagues embodied and helps chronicle.
The concept will be built around forthcoming programs, lectures and events, including what is to be a six-to-eight part fall curriculum series of virtual classes.
From there, said Raymond Doswell, the museum's vice-president of curatorial services, the museum plans to enter into a distinguished collegiate lecture series that into 2022 will focus more on the integration of baseball in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier.
Meanwhile, working with Microsoft, the museum also has been creating a virtual tour. Also on the horizon are two virtual reality projects, one in partnership with KaiXR and the Kauffman Foundation, and the other with Prof. Derek Ham at North Carolina State University.
The NLBM also did more schooling by using the event to announce several major memorabilia acquisitions, including photographs, programs and other publications from the estate of the late Penny Marshall. Better known as an actress and director of movies such as "Big" and "A League of Their Own," Marshall also was an avid fan of the Negro Leagues.
So much so that at one point she planned to make a movie about Effa Manley, co-owner and business manager of the Newark Eagles and the first woman inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The screenplay was written by Byron Motley, son of Bob Motley, the pioneering umpire who helped start the NLBM. The movie, alas, never materialized.
To Kendrick, having a star of her magnitude demonstrate such interest and care as to bequeath upon the NLBM these gifts made their impact all the more meaningful — much like the statement made when Geddy Lee of the band Rush donated to the museum more than 200 baseballs autographed by Negro Leagues players.
The museum also used the occasion to announce the acquisition of a rare handwritten letter from Bud Fowler, believed to be the first Black professional baseball player, sent in 1908 to Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox.
"Fowler is well-known in baseball research circles but obscure for most fans," Doswell said in a related news release. "He is pivotal to understanding the quality of Black baseball players before the Negro National League and the issues faced by Black athletes during early segregation."
Better known in Black baseball history are Foster and slugger Josh Gibson, each represented in artifacts added to the museum's permanent display through the Jay Caldwell Collection.
The Foster financial ledger, obtained last year but only recently retained for posterity, is a meticulously kept record of every transaction from 1920-1925 that Kendrick called the "Holy Grail of Negro Leagues memorabilia."
As such, it reveals that Foster was personally taking in about 5 percent of the league's gate ... even as it also serves to remind of the genius with which the operation was flourishing.
Kendrick's reference to a Gibson autograph on a game-used baseball makes for a fine seque to another development: the impending integration of Negro Leagues statistics from 1920 to 1948 into MLB stats, per MLB's announcement in December.
(The "Hidden Figures" details remain a work in progress, and there's a story in itself to be told about all that — particularly in the exhaustive efforts of those driving Seamheads.com 's Negro Leagues database. Among those most essential to that labor of love has been Larry Lester, a co-founder of the NLBM and author. He has served as chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research's (SABR) Negro Leagues committee and long toiled to document and contextualize the numbers.)
Gibson, known as the "Black Babe Ruth," makes for a case in point about the complications and implications of the overdue acknowledgment: Gibson's Baseball Hall of Fame plaque says "he hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career."
Trouble is, only a fraction of those, perhaps a fourth, would qualify given those he struck in various forms of independent baseball, Lester said in an interview with MLB.com.
Moreover, Negro Leagues statistics can be an elusive commodity because mainstream (aka, white-oriented) newspapers of the era seldom covered the teams in any regular way.
"I don't profess to understanding completely how these numbers are going to be integrated," Kendrick said. "But because they narrowed it down to league games only, it may in some way lessen the number of home runs that Gibson will be credited for.
"But what we'll see on the flip side of that ... (is that) his epic .441 season (in 1943) will now likely be the all-time single season batting record."
The rest of that story remains to be told.
Among plenty of other tales and events ahead in the 101 era, so does the one about murmurs Topps is considering producing Negro Leagues trading cards.
"We are in discussions," Kendrick said, smiling. "So I think it's going to happen here pretty soon."
And so the Negro Leagues live on in their own unforeseeable ways yet all true to Foster's prophecy to set a course on Feb. 13, 1920:
"We are the ship, all else the sea."
A year after a century later, that indomitable mindset was reaffirmed in both the scheme and theme of Negro Leagues 101.
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