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Photo from Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Jackie Robinson and Branch RickeyJackie Robinson and Branch Rickey
Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey
The movie “42,” which made its debut this year at theaters across the nation, tells the story of Brooklyn Dodgers’ white owner Branch Rickey and black player Jackie Robinson, then of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball Leagues, and the landmark integration of Major League Baseball in 1947.
In addition to Kansas City, Mo., the ties to Kansas City, Kan., and what was occurring relating to racial integration are many and should not be forgotten.
To the younger the reader, the more these events may seem like ancient history, but to the older reader or folks with an interest in local history, the period from 1945 to 1965 was not long ago. Either way it should not be forgotten. The movie “42” featuring Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey and newcomer to the silver screen, Chadwick Boseman, as Jackie Robinson, according to media reports, has passed the test of film critics and is being well-attended by the movie-going public across the United States.
Robinson was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League when Rickey approached him in what would become the landmark integration of Major League Baseball in 1947. The movie tells the story of how the two men found each other, why Rickey was willing to take the big step toward integration, how Robinson was believed to be the best man to deal with the brutal challenge he would face as the first black man playing white man’s professional baseball in the post-war era.
Although almost a century had passed since the Civil War, vestiges of Missouri’s history as a slave state and Kansas’ history as a part of the free-state movement were still a reality until the U. S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is how Kansas City, Kan., played a key role in this era. Also, one of the Monarch’s principal owners was a Kansas City, Kan., entrepreneur and businessman.
When the late Arnold Johnson moved the Athletics from Philadelphia to Kansas City, Mo., in 1955, several of the visiting American League baseball teams that came to play the Athletics at old Municipal Stadium stayed at the Town House Hotel at 7th and State Avenue (now the Cross-Lines Tower Senior Living). The same was true in the initial years of the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL. The major hotels in downtown Kansas City, Mo., would not accept “Non-White clientele” until the Civil Rights Act was passed into law. Many of the visiting Negro League players also stayed in private homes or the old Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Mo.
Until the late 1970s, there were no big suburban hotels in Johnson, Clay or Platte counties that could have served a large group like a Negro League or MLB team.
It was a common sight to see small groups of professional athletes “window shopping” the stores and shops along Minnesota Avenue and 7th Street mornings and mid-days. The baseball players usually did not have to be at Municipal Stadium before 2:30 the afternoon before an evening game. The 1950s and 1960s were long before the security-conscious, star-struck, celebrity environment of today. These professional athletes could go out on downtown streets relatively unbothered except for the occasional teenagers who wanted a baseball autographed. Most MLB player salaries averaged in the range of $20,000 to $25,000 in 1960. It made headlines when Mickey Mantle signed the first $100,000 contract for the Yankees in 1961.
Another influence on the MLB teams was believed to have been that the home team physician traditionally provided medical treatment and services to the visiting team’s players. The Kansas City Athletics’ team physician was Dr. John A. Billingsley, whose office was on the 5th floor of the Huron Building, one block south of the Town House Hotel on 7th Street.
After the Civil Rights Act was passed, the teams gradually drifted to Kansas City, Mo., hotels and restaurants. When the late Charles O. Finley purchased the Athletics following Johnson’s death in 1961, he fired Dr. Billingsley as the team physician.
Many people may have forgotten that the sole owner of the Kansas City Monarchs after 1948 was Thomas “Tom” Baird, a well-known businessman and entrepreneur in Kansas City, Kan. He was best known for the Baird Recreation Center at 1401 Minnesota Ave. For decades, business, civic and social clubs scheduled Baird’s for bowling, pool, billiards, snooker and the pinball machines the year around. It was centrally located and on bus and streetcar lines.
Baird’s interest in the Kansas City Monarchs ended in when the Negro Baseball Leagues disbanded in 1955. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line in MLB in 1947, the interest in and the need for the Negro Leagues faded. A national museum dedicated to the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues is located in the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District in Kansas City, Mo.
Tom Baird was an easily recognized figure on the streets of Kansas City, Kan.
He was a tall, thin reed of a man (well over 6 feet) who wore suspenders, glasses and walked with a noticeable limp. Baird died in 1962 at the age of 76. The home he lived in still stands in the 1400 block of North 27th Street in Kansas City, Kan.
This is a story recording the events of a different time and a different era, but it is an integral part of the Kansas City, Kan.,’ history. With the movie “42” showing across the nation, it provided a great time to remind readers of this past sports history to Kansas City, Kan.
Incidentally, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to his first contract for an annual salary of $3,500. Just another sign of how much the times have changed.
Joe H. Vaughan is the board secretary for the Wyandotte County Historical Society. This article originally was written for the Wyandotte Journal, a local history publication. Vaughan’s book, “Kansas City, Kansas,” a photo history of the city, was recently published by Arcadia Publishing in its "Images of America" series.