The Kansas City tourist trifecta is generally considered to be barbeque, jazz, and fountains. And don’t get me wrong – I enthusiastically ate, listened and viewed. But for me, Kansas City was also about sports. Whether I was cheering on the Royals, running a 5K, or learning about Negro League Baseball, Kansas City sports reflects that perfect American combination of patriotism, diversity, and enthusiasm.
And often that enthusiasm is for the under-dog. As a Seattle Mariners fan, I can understand this. One of my first KC activities was to watch the Royals lose a baseball game, which they did in spectacular fashion against the Cleveland Indians. When the whole stadium joined in on singing Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” I turned and asked the season ticket holders sitting next to me if the song was only played when the Royals were losing. They just laughed, joking that it had been so long since the Royals won they couldn’t even answer the question. But seriously, the Garth sing-along takes place every night.
At least Ned Yost’s boys lose their games in a nice stadium. Although Kauffman Stadium is out in the middle of nowhere, it’s a nice looking stadium, with fountains cascading across the outfield, a Hall of Fame museum above the left field wall and statues dotting the outfield concessions. Once you’re at Kauffman Stadium, parking is essentially only available there. Have your ten dollar bill ready. In case you aren’t there during baseball season, the Kansas City Chiefs play at Arrowhead Stadium, which is right next to the baseball field.
Kansas City hasn’t always been the home of baseball underdogs though. In the 1920’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s, the Kansas City Monarchs dominated the league. With ten pennant victories, every boy in American grew up wanting to play for the Monarchs. Every black boy, that is, as Jackie Robinson didn’t break the color barrier in major league baseball until 1947.
Sandwiched in between jazz clubs, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum sits on 18th and Vine just east of downtown. The museum is a nostalgic, poignant, and sometimes tear-jerking celebration of the black baseball league that started in Kansas City in the 1920’s. This VERY well laid out museum includes media clips, memorabilia, stories, and scorecards that showcase the Negro leagues. I’m not really a museum person, but two hours flew by there. If you can’t make it to Kansas City, learn about Negro Leagues baseball history by checking out the oh-so-gorgeous picture book “We are the Ship,” illustrated by the oh-so-gorgeous Kadir Nelson.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is at 1616 East 18th Street. From downtown Kansas City, take 18th street east for a few miles. Street parking is free and easy to find. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from nine to six, and Sunday from noon to six. It is closed Mondays. Tickets are $8 for adults, $3 for children under twelve, and free for kids under five.
Watching and learning about baseball was great, but sooner or later I needed to participate in some sporting activity. My batting average probably sucks and I can’t catch a pop fly to save my life, so I opted to run a race instead of join a softball team.
My race of choice was the Leawood Labor Day 5K. The Kansas City suburb is about twenty miles south of the city center, and by the looks of the houses I drove past, life is good in Leawood. My 500 race opponents and I sang the National Anthem before the race (a pre-race ritual I’ve never experienced before, but rather enjoyed) and dashed off on a flat out-and-back three mile race. Before the race was even finished, initial printouts of results were taped up and Lions club members were firing up the grill for a pancake breakfast. They are efficient here in Leawood, although Lion Bruce was lamenting the fact that the pancakes were sticking to the grill. Apparently last year the flipping process was smoother. They tasted great anyways.
Between eating pancakes with runners, groaning with fans as the Royals left the bases loaded, and silently listening to Buck O’Neil talk about Jackie Robinson, I started to feel an affinity towards Kansas City that sinks a little deeper than ribs and barbeque sauce.