Hall of Game

Negro Leagues Museum comes up with new yearly awards program

From its inception, founders and officials of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City have stressed that the 16-year-old facility is not meant to be an African-American baseball hall of fame.

NLBM representatives, including president Bob Kendrick, say honoring Negro Leaguers in that way has best been left to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The museum clearly recognizes and chronicles the accomplishments of black players during the Negro Leagues era. But Kendrick says the museum can also recognize the contributions of post-Negro League players—of all races—with induction into an establishment that's all the NLBM's own.

That desire has led the museum to create the Hall of Game, an institution that will welcome post-integration players who embody the spirit, grit and zest for baseball that Negro Leaguers did before Organized Baseball fully integrated itself to all ethnicities.

In addition to recognizing the contributions to the sport made by players after the Negro Leagues era, Kendrick says, the Hall of Game will provide a vital link between the past and present.

"It's not really moving away from our mission, but instead expanding our scope so we have a connection to the game today," he said. "It will be about people who played the game with the same level of flair and skill that Negro League players did."

By honoring more modern players who embodied those traits, Kendrick says, they can be living portraits of past greats.

"The key thing for us is to get people to understand how great the players in the Negro Leagues were," he said. "They played a brand of baseball that was second to none. By recognizing major leaguers, we will substantiate the greatness of the Negro Leagues. It will be for players of any color who had the same skill set that was prevalent in the Negro Leagues."

Kendrick said the NLBM is building a Hall of Game selection committee, with the first induction ceremony tentatively planned for 2014. The affair will be an annual one, likely scheduled around April 15, the date when Major League Baseball annually recognizes Jackie Robinson's integration of the majors.

The Hall of Game ceremonies will also include the existing Legacy Awards, which up until now have had their own fete.

The Hall of Game will be part of the current NLBM structure and the adjacent Buck O'Neil Education Center in Kansas City. Kendrick says the Hall of Game will include not only members of the Hall of Fame—he cited Dave Winfield in particular as a possible initial inductee—but also players the selection committee feels may have been overlooked for Cooperstown.

The Hall of Game could be seen as a way to invigorate the Negro Leagues museum, which has endured financial troubles and tumult in its administration in the aftermath of O'Neil's death in 2006. O'Neil was a Negro League great and universally loved baseball ambassador who was the driving force behind the NLBM.

After O'Neill died, the museum board hired Greg Baker as president rather than Kendrick, who had been vice president of marketing and O'Neill's right-hand man since 1998. Baker wanted to move beyond the museum's close connection to O'Neill, which splintered museum supporters. Combined with the recession, the museum saw a decline in donations and revenue, and Baker resigned in the fall of 2010. Kendrick was hired in March 2011.

Kendrick says the criteria for possible induction into the Hall of Game will be "simply how someone played the game. The great thing about it is we essentially have five decades to choose from. That's both daunting and exciting."

Ryan Whirty is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.