KANSAS CITY — The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, a unique window into a vital chapter of American history that the late Buck O'Neil helped open 20 years ago, could be in trouble.
Attendance and revenues are down, and a decision by new management to distance itself from O'Neil has splintered many of its most loyal supporters.
What's more, the recession has cut deeply into donations. After posting its first loss two years ago of about $30,000, the museum is looking at what one staffer termed "a monster loss" that could approach a quarter of a million dollars when the final accounting for 2009 is complete. For a relatively small museum that has always depended on the kindness of others, $200,000 is seismic.
Much of the revenue loss is traceable to a drop in licensing revenue. No one is predicting the museum's imminent demise, but everyone agrees the trend must be reversed.
"For museums all over the country, dollars are becoming hard to find," said Greg Baker, who took over as executive director a little more than a year ago. "We are challenged by that. We've got to raise money to keep going and if we don't, we'll end up closing our doors."
If it shuts down, the country will lose the only museum dedicated exclusively to black baseball's unique contribution to American culture and the vital role those men played in the long and painful march toward equality.
"This place is cherished by too many people to let that happen," historian and filmmaker Ken Burns said. "It would be a cultural tragedy."
O'Neil, a two-time Negro Leagues batting champion and longtime manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, died three years ago at 94. Extraordinarily charismatic, he crisscrossed the country the last 15 years of his life, spinning entertaining tales of long gone African-American stars while making friends and raising money for the museum.
He and a few others began the museum in a little office in 1990. With the help of Burns' epic film on the history of baseball, the museum grew into a 10,000-square foot facility in Kansas City's historic 18th and Vine district.
Crammed with photographs, artifacts, memorabilia and interactive exhibits, it tells the story from the late 1800s until the late 1950s after the major leagues became fully integrated. Just down the street from the museum is the old YMCA building where Rube Foster formed the Negro Leagues in 1920.
But O'Neil's passing robbed the museum of its eloquent goodwill ambassador and almost immediately, controversy and fighting set in among management.
Most divisive has been Baker's decision to back away from the museum's strong connection to O'Neil. Some board members have resigned. Plans to move the museum to the old YMCA building and build the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center have been put on hold in spite of a $1 million donation for that specific purpose by Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of the late founder of the Kansas City Royals Ewing Kauffman.
"On hold, languishing, nearly forgotten — all are terms that are applicable here," said Mark Bryant, a Kansas City attorney and board member from 2004-09.
Like many, Bryant is disturbed by the shift from the memory of the museum's most beloved ambassador.
"I believe that more than any other person, the success of the museum was the result of the efforts of Buck O'Neil," Bryant said. "If we enjoy a reservoir of goodwill, locally and nationally, it was built on the back of Buck O'Neil."
"I am extremely disappointed in the tact it is taking," he said. "It is foolish, absolutely foolish in the extreme to think you would not take advantage of the meaning of Buck's life to help this museum which he struggled so hard to help create."
O'Neil's voice has been removed from the museum's telephone greeting. But what has most angered many people was the decision to de-emphasize his annual birthday celebration in November. The all-day party used to draw as many as 500 people to the museum. But last year, a fraction of that showed up and the event was not used as a fundraiser.
Baker insists he does not intend to forget O'Neil and is trying to widen the museum's circle of friends. Toward that end, he has involved the families of other Negro League stars in museum activities. Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of Hall of Famer Josh Gibson and the head of the Josh Gibson Foundation in Pittsburgh, presented a plaque at the museum's annual Legacy Awards dinner on Saturday night.
"You might say people are still in shock that Buck is gone," Baker said. "They are still languishing there. When you lose somebody like that, sometimes it takes a little time to bounce back. I think they will eventually see this is a really, really good strategy to help keep this museum moving and advancing. If you love Buck, how can you separate the museum from Buck? I'm not Buck O'Neil. There was only one Buck O'Neil."
The history of the Negro Leagues, as O'Neil often pointed out, is much more than a baseball story.
Many historians believe the modern civil rights movement began even before 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person and prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to stage the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. They point to Jackie Robinson breaking the major league racial barrier shortly after World War II as the real spark.
But long before America had heard of Jackie Robinson, men like Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell graced segregated baseball fields throughout the country. Gibson was the only man to hit a ball clear out of old Yankee Stadium. They often beat all-star white teams in exhibition games that would pack the house and showed that black players were as skilled and entertaining as whites.
By paving the way, they made sure mainstream America was ready to accept Robinson — a former Negro Leaguer who played for the Monarchs — when finally he made his courageous debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
As it turned out, Robinson's breakthrough to the majors hastened the eventual death of the Negro Leagues. But, as Buck O'Neil would admonish, waste no pity on the Negro Leaguers.
"Feel sorry for the people who never got to see us," he once said. "We were good."