When they were teenagers, my uncle and my dad had lived baseball together. They would travel down to Brooklyn Avenue to what the Yankees triple A club, When The Blues weren't in town they would wander over to a small stadium on Swope Parkway to watch the Kansas City Monarchs play games. The Monarchs were Kansas City's entrant in the Negro Baseball League. They saw some great players play on these two teams, players whose names would go down in the historical annuls of America's National Pastime. From the Blues, they saw such greats as Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Bobby Richardson play. From the Monarchs games they saw Josh Gibson, Buck O'Neill, Papa Bell, and Satchel Page play the game. Between the two teams and the teams that visited Kansas City to play them, they saw great players several times.
In 1990, as part of the restoration of the 18th and Vine district in Kansas City, They built the Kansas City Jazz Museum along with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The two museums together make up what, for big fans of Jazz and Baseball, would be a two day visit easy. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was the reason my Uncle and cousin had come to Kansas City. Now it was 2016 and it would be my dad's last summer in Kansas City before moving to Alabama and the two old friends had been wanting to visit and had planned several times to visit the baseball museum and this was the day those plans would come to fruition.
My dad. Dad is 88 years old now. His knees are shot and he can't walk very well. He also has a touch of dementia that throws him off track in his thinking once in a while. My uncle had brought a wheelchair with him from St. Louis to make it possible for dad to go through the museum. I was not prepared for what the day would bring.
We parked about a block away from the museum and I placed myself behind the wheelchair and began to push my dad towards the entryway. We stopped outside and Dawn took a picture of the "boys" outside the museum. I say "boys" to describe my dad and uncle because as soon as they entered through those doors and began seeing things long ago filed deep into their memories came alive again. They digressed into being teenagers again seeing things that time and technology has changed in the game of baseball.
The first thing you see as you enter the museum is a ball field with life sized bronze statues of the greatest players at each position from the Negro Leagues. There is Buck O'Neill standing on the side managing the team. On the mound stands the tall lanky Satchel Paige looking towards the plate where Josh Gibson is squatting waiting for the pitch.
Dad didn't recognize all the players by face, but as I read out the names of each player his eyes lit in recognition and he would take an extra extended look at the bronze figure. Eventually dad point towards home plate.
"I bet that is Gibson" dad said as he pointed at the squatting figure, "Let's go up there."
I pushed the wheelchair slowly towards the figure realizing I was approaching a legend who had lived inspired my dad as a catcher. We got to the figure and dad sat there and looked at the figure. In the wheelchair, he and the catcher were face to face, the same height.
"Who does it say it is?" dad asked softly. I leaned over to read the plaque and for some reason was surprised, though I should not have been.
"Josh Gibson" I said in wonderment.
Dad sat there staring at Mr. Gibson, almost looking like he could see into the bronze eyes of the man he had watched play so many times.
"Josh Gibson," dad said in almost a whisper. Then he raised his voice. "He was a great one. One of the best catchers I ever saw play" and dad followed up telling me about seeing Gibson play and some of things he had seen Gibson do. He was not only a great catcher but a greater hitter as well. Dad insisted on Dawn taking his picture with Josh Gibson and then he demanded I join him and Mr. Gibson for a picture. I felt honored. Me there with my dad and Josh Gibson.
The four of us then approached the mound where the figure of Satchel Paige stood. I had seen Paige pitch one time. The owner of the Athletics had signed a few of the old Negro League players to play a regular season game late in September one year. Dad had taken us all out to see Paige pitch. He pitched three innings then retired to the bull pen where he sat in a rocking chair sipping coffee for the remainder of the game. I thought back on that night as I looked at the bronze statue. I had never forgotten that high leg kick and the way Paige still seemed to have what it took to play pro ball. It was in 1965 and Paige was fifty-nine years old that night and he still had it. My cousin shook me out of my memory daydream to get my dad, uncle and myself lined up to take a picture with the great one.
Next we walked to a glass display case of at least a hundred autographed baseballs. Sometimes the writing was just printed but there were names there that I recognized. I went through and read each one that I could make out to dad and he would sit and smile. Now, dad has a baseball collection of his own with autographs from Bob Gibson to Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. He has team baseballs from the several Royals teams and a California Angels team as well as a Yankees. Dad's collection is approximately twenty baseballs I would guess. He looked at the case of all of those baseballs and said "well, my collection isn't quite that big, is it." I laughed a little as I acknowledged to him that no, his collection wasn't quite that large.
Next we found ourselves walking down an aisle that was lined with gold glove awards on either side. As we came to each one, we would stop and I would read the name on the trophy. Sometimes dad would say "Never heard of him" or he would tell me a story about the players that he did remember.
As we progressed through the museum we stopped at every display so dad could study what was inside the glass case. If I went too fast by a case, he would firmly put his hand on the wheel of the chair stopping me and ordering me to back up so he could get a better look. He took in everything. He talked about everything from shoes, to wool uniforms, to different kinds of gloves.
Towards the end of our visit we came across a picture on the wall. It was a picture of the small stadium over on Swope Parkway taken the day they had refurbished and rededicated the stadium to be named Satchel Paige Memorial Stadium and all of the supporters and donators were out on the field. As I looked at that picture the history of that stadium suddenly began to overwhelm me. Satchel Paige had pitched and Josh Gibson had caught there. Papa Bell had smacked uncountable home runs over the tall right field fence. But there was more to that stadium than that to me. It was a personal history that I had with that small stadium.
It had been home to more than just the Negro leagues. Amateur leagues of seventeen and eighteen year olds had played there such as the Ban Johnson League. My dad had played on that same field. My dad's little brother, my Uncle Jim, had also played there. What really struck home though, as to how close I was tied to that stadium was that my son, when he was in his late teens had also played on that very field, and Buck O'Neill had been there a few times to watch him play. I just stared at that picture then pointed in the pictured where my son had played second base for three years there as my cousin snapped a picture of the picture.
It took us about three and a half hours to go through that museum thoroughly and it was worth every second. It had been such a very long time since I had seen my dad so totally focused for such a long period of time. It was the first time in a long time that his memory seemed to be crystal clear and he was able to communicate what was on his mind totally. Finally it was the first time in a long time that I remember my dad talking about the trip in a very precise way for days afterwards.
Dad had been a kid again, and he loved it. I can never thank my Uncle Jack and cousin Dawn enough for taking us down to that shrine of almost forgotten baseball. A very special day out for my dad.
|Dad and Josh Gibson|