KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Crowds gathered at the corner of 22nd and Brooklyn. Shades of white, red and navy blue catch the eye in all directions. There were jerseys and baseball caps, t-shirts and flags. It was a Saturday morning at what used to be the Municipal Stadium, at what is now known as Monarch Plaza. And it was a party.
As Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, hugged the pickers, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas posed for photos.
“It’s amazing,” said one man. Another showed his son the Leroy “Satchel” Paige memorial gazebo.
Suddenly, a whistle pierced the air and the Marching Cobras, a 50-plus African-American drill team in the city, lined the street. A rhythmic beat signaled to the pickers the start of the March of the Monarchs. They walked down Brooklyn Avenue, the same route Negro League baseball players would take to get to Arthur Bryant’s barbecue 80 years ago. The rumble of Cobra drums continued.
Kendrick was present throughout the walk. Lucas too, and apparently 100 others: City Council members, Royals staffers, locals. They turned left on 18th Street, past the old Kansas City Call newspaper house, past the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and to the end of the street. Behind the museum, marchers listened to jazz music, bought hot dogs and enjoyed the weather as the occasion arose: an 80th anniversary celebration of the monarchs sweeping the famed Homestead Grays to win the Negro League World Series of 1942.
“We hope this becomes an annual tradition,” Kendrick said, “as we remember the great monarchs of Kansas City.”
Later, Kendrick told a story like only he can, about what happened one night after a Monarchs game inside the old jazz joint, the Subway Club. According to Kendrick, the players sat down over sweet tea, and a 17-year-old kid came on stage and started blowing a horn in a way they had never heard before. The kid, according to Kendrick’s story? Charlie Parker.
As is usually the case with Kendrick stories, you can close your eyes and imagine it – almost stepping back in time, if you will. You can imagine 1942 and you can imagine the kind of spirit this local baseball team sparked for its community.
In May 1942, the Monarchs played their first home games against the Memphis Red Sox in what was then called Ruppert Stadium, named after Yankees owner and former Colonel Jacob Ruppert Jr.
A 50-piece band, made up of local high school students and many local bugle corps, signaled the start of the season. Dr. JB Martin, president of the Negro American League, was present. The Kansas City Star wrote of the event: “Satchel Paige, outstanding black pitcher, will pitch Game 2.
The Monarchs split the doubleheader in front of 8,964 fans. By July, however, the club had begun to show their potential. On July 16, the Kansas City Times described the Monarchs as “the most entertaining and successful team in the Negro American League”.
Four reasons for the intrigue: Paige, right-hander Hilton Smith, outfielder Willard Brown and first baseman Buck O’Neil — four members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Fast forward to September, when the Monarchs won the American Negro League. Their opponent in the World Series? The Homestead Greys, which boasted of Josh Gibson, Jud Wilson, Ray Brown and Buck Leonard.
Wendell Smith, who became the first African-American recipient of the JG Taylor Spink Award in 1993, described series expectations like this in The Pittsburgh Courier: “The Grays had beaten the Monarchs four times in off-court games. competition before the series. … On paper, the Grays looked like a safe bet. But, sadly, they don’t play things as big as the World Series on paper.
They played the first game in Washington, DC at Griffith Stadium. Paige pitched five scoreless innings in front of 25,000 fans. The Associated Press wrote of the Monarchs’ 8-0 win this way: “The Monarchs landed 13 shots on southpaw Roy Welmaker and capitalized on six Washington errors.” The next game has been set for Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Once again, Paige took to the mound with something to prove.
“I suppose no baseball club in the country has so embarrassed the pride of Birmingham and the star of Kansas City as the galloping Grays of Homestead,” Wendell Smith wrote in the Courier. “Well, as they say among the mountain people, ‘Satch’ returns on Thursday night for revenge and to show the citizens of these regions that this latest tragedy was just one of those fateful nights in the career of a great pitcher. ”
Paige, however, did not start the game for unexplained reasons. Instead, Hilton Smith pitched five scoreless innings. Paige relieved. And the Monarchs won 8-4, taking the series lead 2-0.
Next up was a game in New York in front of 30,000 fans. Wendell Smith detailed the pre-game atmosphere in which “the Grays started with blood in their eyes”. They scored two runs against Paige in the first inning, but the climax, according to Smith, apparently came in the third. Paige hit, but the ball rolled away from Gibson behind the plate, and Paige, in Wendell Smith’s words, “ran first to safety”. The Monarchs scored three runs that inning and won the game 9-3.
The most memorable game of the series might have been Kansas City’s fourth at Ruppert Stadium. The Grays were dealing with injuries — their shortstop Sam Bankhead broke his arm — and started four new players on their roster. They won 4-1, but the Monarchs protested, “accusing the Grays of using ‘ringers,'” the Courier wrote. The Grays argued they had no alternative, but Kansas City won their appeal.
“And that, according to John Clark, Gray’s secretary, is the ‘inner story’ of the 1942 World Series,” the Courier wrote.
The Monarchs won the final game 9-5, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Afterwards, Wendell Smith complimented the Monarchs’ pitching corps, noting Paige in particular. He laid out the stats – Paige struck out 18 and walked four in 16 2/3 innings – and completed his column: “And that, boys and girls, is the full story of how Kansas City underdogs rose up and felled the unsuspecting Giants of Homestead, Pennsylvania.
Nearly 80 years after the victory, you could smell the charcoal on the smoker outside the Negro Leagues Museum. Kendrick stood in front of the many people in attendance and said into his microphone, “My friend Buck would be so proud.”
The previous evening, dignitaries had gathered at the newly rededicated Monarch Plaza, a project spearheaded by Kendrick and Kiona Sinks, the museum’s community engagement manager.
The museum received a $10,000 grant from local energy company Evergy to revitalize the area commemorating the stadium that once housed the monarchs, among many other local teams.
Now, a day later, the town mayor walked behind the Marching Cobras and bounced to the beat of their drums. Young boys and girls listened to their parents tell them stories about the meaning of the day and what monarchs and black leagues stood for.
The scene was vibrant. It was like a party. It was good.
(Top photo of Quinton Lucas, left, and Bob Kendrick: Alex Lewis/ Athleticism)