Kansas City is a sports city. While we may not always bring home the trophy, our city still supports the players who give their all on the field. In fact, Kansas City was home to the longest-running franchise in Negro Leagues Baseball. The Monarchs began this streak in 1920 and continued until 1965. These days an independent professional baseball team, on the Kansas side of the city, honors the Monarchs name. Looking to learn more about the rise of the Monarchs, we made our way to the 18th & Vine District. A tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was sure to add some clarity to the often overlooked heroes of the diamond.
The Early Days
Years before the first shot of the Civil War was fired, amateur baseball teams were growing in popularity in eastern U.S. cities. It was during this period when many of the ground rules for the sport were established. In 1858, the National Association of Baseball Players was established. While the lure of recreational sport was enticing, African Americans were prohibited from participating in professional baseball. Passion for the sport would not be extinguished by racism and in the late 1880s, the National Colored Base Ball League was born. This short-lived enterprise failed due to low attendance, but proved that baseball is a sport for all people.
Negro Leagues is Born
The early 1900s saw the rise to fame of Andrew “Rube” Foster. This pitching sensation had an amazing mind for the game, both on and off the field. During World War 1, the need for manpower at industrial plants, hastened the migration of blacks from the south to the northern states. After the war, the nation was ripe for a return to its Great American Pastime. February 1920 would find Kansas City as the location for discussion of the next steps for black baseball. By Valentine’s day, the Negro National League and the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs were formed. Foster, the new league president, would oversee the eight teams. He controlled most aspects including; player distribution, when and where teams played, and what equipment was used by players.
KC Loves Sports
As we made our way through the exhibits, we discovered fascinating stories from the past. The crowds at the museum were a reminder of how much our city loves their sports. The origins of the Monarchs were grounded in barnstorming ball. Many teams had no permanent homefield, and opted to travel from town to town. Athletes often played in multiple sports, depending on the season. This type of entertainment still exists today, with teams like the Harlem Globetrotters of basketball fame. In 1920, the rise of the Monarchs sprung from the beginning of the Negro Leagues. The early days of the Monarchs found them in stiff competition with Rube Foster’s Chicago team, who dominated the league.
Rise of the Monarchs
Assigning Jose Mendez as manager would lead the Monarchs to their first league title in 1923. The following year, they would repeat and go on to win the first Negro World Series championship. Mendez was an important part of this win with an ERA of 1.42, across four games, including a shutout. In 1928, the Monarchs recorded the best record ever with 62 wins and 17 losses. They would just miss out on their second championship. The Great Depression hit the league hard, and it folded in 1931 due to financial issues. Once again, the Monarchs found themselves barnstorming to survive.
Resurgence of the League
The pent-up demand for entertainment would see the return of the Negro Leagues in 1933. The Monarchs would return to the league, in 1937, and once again win a league title. In 1940, Satchel Paige came to Kansas City. Even though his rookie season was back in 1927, he was still a hurler feared by batters around the league. When the rejuvenated league reestablished the Negro League World Series, in 1942, the Monarchs would again take the title.
Breaking the Barrier
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is filled with tons of interesting tidbits on players, coaches, and even club owners. The list of famous Monarchs ballplayers included names like Jackie Robinson, who hit .387 during the 1945 season. Two years later he would become the first black player to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It eventually led to more black players being taken by other clubs. As the pool of talent was reduced by this move, it signaled the end of the Negro Leagues. The league had officially survived for 40 years and had seen some of the greatest players that ever played the game.
We continued through the museum, and found exhibits detailing the changing atmosphere of the country. Even though the color barrier had been broken, it did not mean an immediate acceptance. In fact, the addition of black players to the Major League was greeted with boos, hisses, and even death threats. While attitudes were slow to change, the actions that had been set in motion would not be stopped. While it meant an end to the Negro Leagues, it brought true recognition to these baseball greats who had been overlooked for far too long.
Taking it to the Field
Kansas City had a lot to be proud of, as the rise of the Monarchs represents one of the most successful clubs in the league. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was founded in 1990 and has found a home that is befitting the key role sports played in community relations. We had worked our way through the exhibits and came to the Field of Legends. From here, we could see the 12 statues of Negro League Baseball greats. Our visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum taught us about the struggles that these ball players endured just to play a game they loved. Without those sacrifices, our city may have never seen the rise of the Monarchs.
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Very interesting article. It’s a shame that so many people were prevented from playing a sport they loved.
Thanks. For too long people believed they were better than others because of the color of their skin. When will we all learn that we are all in this together?