Negro league player's legacy causing divisions at baseball museum

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Randall Ferguson is a friend of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He wants to make this clear before saying what’s on his mind.

He helped raise the money that got the museum started 20 years ago, served as board president eight years and is still involved on various committees.

That said, he sees a movement under the museum’s new leadership with which he’s not entirely comfortable. Specifically, it’s a movement away from the memory and legacy of Buck O’Neil.

“Buck deserves better than this,” Ferguson said.

Greg Baker has heard those words, and not just from Ferguson. Baker is nearing one year as the executive director — he started last Dec. 17 — and wants to make it clear that the museum’s success is as important to him as anyone.

One way Baker plans on making that happen is to branch beyond O’Neil.

“Over 20 years, we have not impacted the broader community,” Baker said. “People understood Buck very well, but the museum operated in his shadow. For it to survive, we’ve got to change that.”

Baker expresses love for O’Neil, noting that for years the local icon was the museum’s pulse, but he says that for the institution to navigate today’s challenging times, it must move beyond the memories of O’Neil, who died three years ago.

This is a critical time for the museum as it winds down a rough financial year and prepares for its 20th anniversary and the 10th Legacy Awards in 2010. The Legacy Awards will move from the Gem Theater to the bigger Grand Ballroom at Bartle Hall, a move that could multiply donations.

The museum is projected to lose six figures this year. Taking advantage of next year’s anniversaries will be key to its future.

Among other things, Baker wants to build stronger partnerships with local businesses, better promote the museum in the suburbs and reach out to the families of more former Negro Leaguers — including some who previously felt shut out.

O’Neil’s birthday celebration set off the most concern from the museum’s base. He would have turned 98 last month, and in past years, the museum held tributes that featured musical groups the Temptations and En Vogue.

The event was more than an emotional tribute. It also became one of the museum’s best fundraisers. Two years ago it raised nearly $50,000, and last year turned a more modest profit.

This year to celebrate the anniversary of O’Neil’s birth, the museum cut admission to “a Buck” and had free cupcakes and refreshments. Jazz musicians played throughout the day, and the gift shop discounted merchandise.

“There’s a right way to celebrate and a cheap way to celebrate,” Ferguson said.

Baker has heard the sentiments, and he said in hindsight he regretted not making the celebration bigger. Next year’s budget includes money for a larger tribute. Baker said he eventually would like to see a whole week dedicated to O’Neil.

Just as long as none of this tethers the museum in a way that prevents it from growing and expanding its reach. Baker said it’s a business-first approach to an issue that others see emotionally.

“Honestly, some people were so close to Buck, they’re fixated on that,” Baker said. “They can’t imagine living without him. And they still haven’t gotten over that. And maybe they won’t get over it.”

Linda Paige-Shelby likes the new direction. Mostly, that’s because she feels a part of it. She is the daughter of Satchel Paige, the Hall of Fame pitcher, but for so long she felt ignored.

“All I can go by is our past treatment and present treatment,” she said.

Right or wrong, there are Negro Leaguers and their families who have felt shut out by the museum. Former Executive Director Don Motley said there were efforts to reach out, but “if they want to support the museum, that’s up to them.”

Paige-Shelby lives in Kansas City and was happy when Baker called a few months ago to meet and exchange ideas. Paige-Shelby would like some help with her family’s foundation that gives college scholarships to children from single-parent families, an issue that was very important to her father.

Baker said he has made “150 contacts” with decision-makers from the American Jazz Museum, which shares the building at 18th and Vine streets with the baseball museum, to suburban mayors to the AARP — which has a demographic similar to that of the museum.

But it is his reaching out to the disgruntled families of former Negro Leaguers that might be most beneficial.

Sean Gibson was at Baker’s meeting with Paige-Shelby. Some say Gibson’s great-grandfather Josh Gibson was the black Babe Ruth. Others say Ruth was the white Josh Gibson. Either way, Josh Gibson is essential to the memories of the Negro Leagues, and his family’s involvement with the museum has been, to this point, minimal.

Gibson’s family has a foundation, too, so the museum’s challenge is to develop partnerships that can be mutually beneficial. Baker has thought about a fundraising golf tournament, for instance, to benefit each side while building mutual trust and support.

Sean Gibson plans to present the award named for his father at next month’s Legacy Awards, but he makes it clear his family does not fully trust the museum. That may start to change with this new direction.

“I do feel like (Baker) reaching out to us, that’s a huge step,” Gibson said.

This is where Ferguson and others see a potential problem.

“I know it’s been kicked around the board meetings, and I hope it won’t be moved away from Buck,” said Motley, the former executive director. “You can’t move away from the history part because people will not support it like they used to.”

“It’s a business, man,” Baker said. “We can’t stand still. Buck is not going to come back and help us now. Buck is putting his foot on my neck now and saying, ‘You better get out there and make this thing work.’

“The message is, for everyone that loves Buck: ‘It’s your museum. Help us make it work.’”

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