07/09/12 6:20 PM ET
Commissioner tours Negro Leagues Museum
Selig calls exploration of baseball history 'educational' and 'inspiring'
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
It began with a full rundown of the 11 life-size statues of legends of the Negro Leagues, an All-Star team for the ages featuring pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige, catcher Josh Gibson, center fielder Oscar Charleston and left fielder James "Cool Papa" Bell.
"Our centerpiece is the 'Field of Legends,'" Kendrick told a rapt Selig, peering out at the diamond from behind a glass barrier and chicken wire. "The only way you're allowed to take the field [as a spectator] is by learning their stories. [That] makes you worthy of walking out on the field with 10 of the greatest players in history."
Along with Paige, Gibson, Charleston and Bell, the field contains first baseman Buck Leonard, second baseman Judy Johnson, shortstop John Henry Lloyd, third baseman Ray Dandridge, right fielder Leon Day (who also pitched) and Martin Dihigo -- the Cuban sensation widely hailed as the most versatile player in history -- poised in the batter's box.
The 11th statue is of manager Buck O'Neil, captured in a pensive pose. O'Neil, a great first baseman before serving as scout, coach, manager and ambassador of the game, died a month shy of his 95th birthday in 2006. He founded the museum and was its driving force before his good friend Kendrick.
Kendrick entertained Selig with inside stories about the players.
"Buck said Oscar Charleston combined the defense of Tris Speaker, the speed of Ty Cobb and the bat of Babe Ruth from that era," Kendrick said. "Babe Ruth called John Henry Lloyd the best player in baseball.
"Josh Gibson was power personified. We still believe he's the only guy to hit a ball out of [old] Yankee Stadium, estimated at 600 feet. Josh swung a 40-ounce bat. Believe it or not, that wasn't the biggest bat. Mule Suttles swung a 50-ounce bat.
"Leroy 'Satchel' Paige arguably is the greatest pitcher in the history of the game. He was the [American League] Rookie of the Year at 42 -- [but] he was probably closer to 52 than 42."
As they toured the facility, perusing newspaper clips and a remarkable collection of artifacts, Selig appeared spellbound at times. A display of Street Hotel, where the elite of African-American society gathered in Kansas City, brought this remark from Kendrick: "You might see Joe Louis on one of those chairs, or Jesse Owens. Jesse refused to race Cool Papa Bell."
Cool Papa stories remain the stuff of legend. Earlier in the day, Hall of Famer Lou Brock had offered one of his own.
"Chuck Berry laughs every time he hears this," Brock said. "Cool Papa Bell bunted a ball down third base. The pitcher came down to get it and throw to first, and he turns around and actually tags Cool Papa rounding third."
A display of the Pittsburgh Crawfords of 1933-35 produced a comment from Kendrick that "a lot of people thought that was the greatest team of all time."
When Kendrick arrived at a striking photo of a very young Henry Aaron -- his favorite player as a kid -- Selig's face came alive. Aaron and Selig are enduring friends dating to their time together in Milwaukee.
"My favorite photo," Kendrick said, pointing to the image of a youthful Aaron with the 1952 Indianapolis Clowns. "They called him 'Pork Chop,' because all he ate was pork chops and fries."
Arriving at the Jackie Robinson exhibit, Kendrick proudly pointed out that the incomparable pioneer made his professional debut with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. Two years later, he crashed through the racial barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"If it hadn't been for the Negro Leagues," Kendrick said, "we don't know if we'd have had Jackie Robinson."
Selig came away from the tour moved and impressed by the museum and its director, Kendrick.
"A wonderful day, for me to walk around here and see what the Negro Leagues did and what they meant to baseball," Selig said. "I love the presentation of history.
"This has been terrific -- very educational, really. Some of baseball's greatest players started in the Negro Leagues. Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson ... those players paved the way for players today, like Matt Kemp, Curtis Granderson, Adam Jones and Prince Fielder."
Selig thanked Kendrick for his "commitment to this time period that is a very important part of baseball history.
"Your passion and knowledge of this game [are] inspiring," Selig added.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.