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01/30/10 6:26 PM EST

Negro Leagues Museum captivates visitors

Visit to hall serves as warm-up for Legacy Awards

KANSAS CITY -- When you go through the old-time turnstiles at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, you encounter the statue of Buck O'Neil, leaning and gazing through a chicken wire fence and onto the playing field.

"Field of Legends" it's called and it's filled by statues of the Negro Leagues' greatest stars -- Ray Dandridge, Buck Leonard, Leon Day, Pop Lloyd, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and others. It's a captivating sight.

That's what struck Angels closer Brian Fuentes on Saturday when he arrived for the 10th annual Legacy Awards.

"I wanted to go right out on the field and check all that out, it's pretty neat," Fuentes said. "But it wasn't that easy."

No, the chicken wire keeps out visitors, who are gently nudged through the Museum's hallway of history which details the rich heritage of African-Americans, as well as Latinos, in baseball and culture. The Negro Leagues were formed in Kansas City in 1920.

Then, at the end of the walk through, lies access to field and the legendary players.

"You go through the process of learning the history and you've got to earn that right to go out there and walk amongst the great players," Fuentes said. "And, really, it's for the best. If you'd just walk out and see the great statues, you wouldn't get the full appreciation of what these guys are all about."

Red Sox outfielder Mike Cameron, honored for his baseball and community leadership, was making his third visit to the Museum and he could appreciate how Fuentes felt.

"The first time I came here, the first thing I wanted to do is come out on the field," Cameron said. "But you have to understand the history of what these players represent and what they went through. When you walk through here and you see their suitcases and the beds they had to sleep in and the sacrifices they made just for the opportunity to stand 60 feet 6 inches away and chase a little ball around and get dirty. These were people that genuinely cherished the game, day-in and day-out."

Cameron and Fuentes joined other award winners at the Museum in a warm-up session prior to Saturday night's Legacy Awards event which drew about 800 to the Kansas City Convention Center.

The Museum is in its 20th year and this launched a year-long celebration in an effort to strengthen its standing as an important tourist attraction and cultural institution.

"I find this museum to be incredibly moving because of not only its place in baseball but its place in history," said ESPN's Claire Smith, honored as baseball writer of the year.

"I would not have become a writer if it were not for Jackie Robinson and I wouldn't have been a Jackie Robinson fan if it were not for my mother. My father was a Willie Mays fan so there's a little tension in the house. I came to love this game because of the sacrifices and the commitment that this Museum honors. I thank these generations for what they did for the country. It's just a marvelous, marvelous history that should never be forgotten."

Robinson, a Negro Leagues graduate who broke the Major Leagues' color barrier in 1947, was on almost everyone's mind.

"If Jackie wouldn't have done what he did, I wouldn't be able to be here on this podium. We've got to take that into perspective every time we step on the field," said the Astros' Michael Bourn, who won the Cool Papa Bell Award as the National League's top basestealer.

Wendy Lewis, MLB's senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, represented Commissioner Bud Selig to accept the Buck O'Neil Award for outstanding support of the Museum.

"We all owe so much to the people who are honored here and this legacy should continue," Lewis said. "Don't ever come to KC and not visit it again -- you will learn something different and very profound each time."

Not only does MLB support the NLBM but each year its clubs play games wearing replicas of Negro Leagues uniforms. That's an annual highlight for Cameron, who draws on the knowledge gained at the Museum.

"I try to create the whole experience for myself when we do play those games," he said.

Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners' general manager who was honored as the American League executive of the year, has become a big fan of the Museum. There was great joy in the Negro Leagues -- the fun is evident in some of the film clips that are shown -- but the struggles of the players and the barriers they encountered are a huge part of the story.

"There are times when you have to hold back your tears," Zduriencik said. "It's pretty special."

2009 Legacy Award winners

Oscar Charleston Award to AL, NL MVPs: Joe Mauer, Twins, and Albert Pujols, Cardinals

Bullet Rogan Award to AL, NL Pitchers of the Year: Zack Greinke, Royals; Chris Carpenter, Cardinals

Josh Gibson Award to AL, NL HR leaders: Carlos Pena, Rays, and Mark Teixeira, Yanks (tie); Pujols

Cool Papa Bell Award to AL, NL stolen-base leaders: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox; Michael Bourn, Astros

Buck Leonard Award to AL, NL batting champs: Mauer, Twins; Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

Rube Foster Award to AL, NL Executives of Year: Jack Zduriencik, Mariners; Dan O'Dowd, Rockies

C.I. Taylor Award to AL, NL Managers of Year: Mike Scioscia, Angels; Jim Tracy, Rockies

Larry Doby Award to AL, NL Rookies of the Year: Elvis Andrus, Rangers; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

Hilton Smith Award to AL, NL Relievers of Year: Brian Fuentes, Angels; Heath Bell, Padres

Pop Lloyd Award in recognition of baseball/community leadership: Mike Cameron, Red Sox

Sam Lacy Award to baseball writer of year: Claire Smith, ESPN

Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award for career excellence in the face of adversity: Joe Morgan, ESPN baseball analyst

Buck O'Neil Award for outstanding support of the NLBM: Commissioner Bud Selig

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.