Donations rolling in for Buck O'Neil Center

Updated: February 13, 2007, 7:27 PM ET
Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If not for the creation of the Negro Leagues 87 years ago, would Condoleezza Rice be Secretary of State today?

Could Colin Powell have become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

Would ignorance and bigotry have forced Michael Jordan, Reggie Jackson and Gale Sayers onto obscure, out-of-the-way courts and fields, denying light-skinned Americans the chance to enjoy their wondrous talents on full display?

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and many others believe American history would have taken a different turn if not for a fateful meeting in Kansas City on Feb. 13, 1920. It was then that black entrepreneur Rube Foster and a small group of other visionary businessmen founded the Negro Leagues and took what turned out to be a giant step in the long march to equality.

By what was then known as a "gentlemen's agreement," black athletes were not allowed into the major league. But 27 years later, Jackie Robinson finally shattered baseball's color barrier. Fifteen years after that, Buck O'Neil became the majors' first black coach.

And now the Negro Leagues Museum, co-founded by O'Neil in 1990, is hoping to create the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center in that same Paseo YMCA where it all got started on a chilly afternoon 87 years ago.

The projected cost is $15 million. They've raised about $2 million, bolstered by a $100,000 donation from Kansas City's Sprint Corp. on Tuesday, the anniversary of the Negro Leagues' founding.

A gift of $1 million, announced at the funeral service for O'Neil last fall, came from a charitable foundation set up through the sale of the Kansas City Royals to David Glass. In addition, the Royals have donated $100,000 toward the project and the major-league players' association has promised $250,000.

"We've raised nearly $2 million without even knocking on doors yet," said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Museum. "Most of what we've got so far is through private donations."

Burns, whose documentary on the history of baseball helped make O'Neil a household name, is hopeful the research center will help Americans appreciate the key role the Negro Leagues and the date of Feb. 13, 1920, played in American culture.

"The genius of America is improvisation," Burns said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's embodied in our Constitution, the music that was given such a boost in Kansas City, in the history of the African-American response to the prejudice they found.

"One of the greatest and most important manifestations of that improvisation was the creation of the Negro Leagues. It was part of their attempt to prove not only to the world but to themselves their ability to play in the big leagues. So they created and managed and owned teams of separate but equal talent," Burns said.

O'Neil, who died in October at 94, was a two-time Negro Leagues batting champion and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, their most successful team.

"Buck's passing generated quite a bit of increased interest in what we're doing," Kendrick said.

Planners hope to incorporate interactive technology and state-of-the-art research equipment at the Center, providing visitors and scholars alike the opportunity to study every aspect of the Negro Leagues and black social history in the United States.

It will house more than 45,000 square feet of archives, educational areas, exhibits, conference facilities and administrative offices. An indoor facility where young people can learn baseball year-round is also in the works.

In addition, the center will offer a curriculum for students to use baseball to learn math and science.

"I think the creation of the Negro Leagues was the death knell of the 'gentlemen's agreement' that kept African-Americans out," Burns said. "By showing the world they had this spectacular talent, it would only be a matter of time before everyone would realize what it was that they were missing."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press