Who's Trying to Destroy Negro League Landmarks in Kansas City?

Natalie Weiner@natalieweinerStaff WriterJune 27, 2018

** FILE ** Buck O'Neil addresses the media at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., in a Monday, Feb. 27, 2006, photo. O'Neil, baseball's charismatic Negro Leagues ambassador who barnstormed with Satchel Paige and inexplicably fell one vote shy of the Hall of Fame, died Friday, Oct. 6, 2006.. He was 94.(AP Photo/Chris Cummins, file)
B/R

Since its founding in 1990, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, hadn't had any serious issues with vandalism—until last week, when its Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center was flooded after a water line on the second floor was cut and the water was turned on, dousing not just the second floor, but the first floor and basement as well.   

One month prior, another Kansas City Negro Leagues landmark faced a similarly catastrophic crime: A suspected arsonist set the home of pitching legend Satchel Paige on fire in late May, leaving potentially irreparable damage. Both cases were far more serious than the graffiti tagging that typically plagues out-of-use buildings.

At the O'Neil Center, the museum staff responded to a series of alerts from the fire alarm panel early Friday morning, only to find water gushing down stairwells and seeping through ceilings, causing significant damage to a renovation that had begun in 2011 and was about a year from completion. The building's first floor—the area most damaged by the flooding—was just months from opening to the public.

"There has been a community investment in this project that goes beyond finance," says Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick of the renovation that so far has cost $4 million. "This was an investment of sweat equity. When we first started cleaning the building up, ordinary people from the community would come in, put their boots on and start gathering debris. A lot of people in Kansas City are hurting right alongside the Negro Leagues Museum, as we think about this very heinous attempt to damage the center."

The Buck O'Neill Education and Research Center.
The Buck O'Neill Education and Research Center.Photo courtesy of Bob Kendrick

The Buck O'Neil Center is an initiative more than a decade in the making. O'Neil was a first baseman and manager for the Negro American League's Kansas City Monarchs. Later in life, he became one of the Negro Leagues' most visible spokesmen as well as one of the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Fundraising for the education and research center, one of O'Neil's pet projects, was supposed to be spurred by his election to the Hall of Fame—but he controversially missed his last shot to make it to Cooperstown in 2006. O'Neil died later that year.

"Seeing all that water, my heart just dropped in my stomach," says Kendrick. "It was one of the most empty feelings I think I've ever had. The closest thing I can think of is when I had to tell Buck he didn't have enough votes to get into the Hall of Fame."

The site's significance goes beyond the man it's named for. The center is housed in the Paseo YMCA, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. But it had been derelict since the 1970s until an NLBM board member purchased and donated it to the museum. The building is where the Negro National League was founded February 13, 1920. Beyond that, it was one of the oldest black YMCAs in the country, opening in 1914, and it served as a gathering place for the 18th and Vine district, now recognized as a vital destination in the history of American sports, music and culture. Joe Louis trained there, and Jackie Robinson spent time in the building. "It was the primary meeting place outside of the church, and it was one of the few places African Americans could swim in Kansas City," says Kendrick.

The museum staff approached renovation incrementally, knowing that between O'Neil's death and the financial crisis, a capital campaign to raise the $15 million needed to complete the project in one fell swoop would be nearly impossible. In doing so, the staff avoided debt, but it now has to pay heating and cooling costs for the space even though it's still not operable.

The building's event space, converted from the old gymnasium (and keeping its old elevated track) was supposed to open soon and generate income from rentals. "It is imperative for us to get this renovation process expedited so we can start using that space to help offset some of the costs that we have been incurring and will have to continue to, even as we now may have to redo that first floor," says Kendrick. They're still assessing the damage to the space and have to wait for mold and mildew experts to ensure the building is safe before embarking on any construction. Kendrick is still not sure whether insurance will cover the cost of repairs.

About a five-minute drive south of the Buck O'Neil Center sits the home where Paige—the first black pitcher to play in the World Series (1948)—lived from the early 1960s until the Hall of Famer's death in 1982. The house, also located in a historically black neighborhood, was a haven for Kansas City legends inside both baseball and jazz: Count Basie, among others, was a frequent guest.

Now the house lies abandoned and, since late May, charred almost beyond recognition. A fire destroyed the top two floors and put a serious hurdle in front of museum staff members who had hoped to one day restore the home and help it become an officially designated historical site. It's still unclear whether the house, which is owned by an individual outside the Paige family, can be salvaged at all. Investigators found traces of accelerant used to start the fire, and Jacob Becchina, an investigator with the Kansas City Police Department, confirms it's being treated as an arson, though they have no suspects.

"My gut tells me that there's not a connection between the two, but I don't really know," says Kendrick. "Maybe it's because the human side of me says that surely nobody would target those two names intentionally to do something of this nature."

"Why?" is the question that remains for police, and for the Kansas City community. Neither event is being investigated as a hate crime, partially because of the lack of evidence. "Break-ins are very difficult, absent a witness, surveillance footage or physical evidence," says Becchina, which is the case in both the Buck O'Neil Center and Paige house cases. Those with any information are urged to contact the Kansas City Police Department.

The museum is looking for silver linings, though: The delayed grand opening might mean the center's official debut will coincide with the centennial of the Negro National League: February 13, 2020. "Rest assured that this project is not going to die because this crazy incident occurred," says Kendrick. "It makes us even more resolved to get this thing moving so that the community can start using it. Right now, we're just dealing with the reality that someone would do something like this."

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