Three traveling baseball exhibitions on view in the metro this spring chart a history with local overtones and signals a comeback for a local organization. The exhibits are courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Omaha's own Great Plains Black History Museum is presenting the photo shows at family-friendly venues.
The exhibits are happening in the heat of the baseball season, too. The last few weeks of their run coincide with the College World Series.
The history of black baseball is told in Discover Greatness and the life and times of Kansas City Monarchs player-manager Buck O'Neil, who co-founded the Negro Leagues museum and served as its goodwill ambassador, is celebrated in Baseball's Heart and Soul. Both exhibits show through June 26 at Conestoga Magnet School, 2115 Burdette Street, in the heart of Omaha's black community.
Conestoga's an apt host site as Negro leagues teams barnstormed through North Omaha, sometimes playing exhibitions with the Omaha Rockets, a semi-pro black independent club. The Monarchs and other Negro leagues teams stayed at black boarding and rooming houses in North O, including one operated by Von Trimble's parents. Trimble says he has fond memories of meeting legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, playing catch with them in his yard, riding with them to the ballpark on the team bus and sometimes sitting in the dugout during games.
Trimble's expected to share his anecdotes on some future date at Conestoga.
Then, too, the school's only a few blocks from the black museum's long closed home, where artifacts from Omaha native and Cooperstown member Bob Gibson, who was offered by the Monarchs, were displayed.
A third exhibit, Times, Teams and Talent, offers an overview of the Negro leagues. It can be seen during Omaha Storm Chaser games through May 24 on the main concourse, behind section 114, at Werner Park, 12356 Ballpark Way in Papillion. That exhibit then moves to The Bullpen at the Omaha Baseball Village, adjacent to TD Ameritrade Park, for the June 15-26 CWS.
Intentional about having a strong youth focus, organizers recruited 36 youth ambassadors from 11 area schools, all but one in OPS, to be paid greeters and tour guides at Conestoga. An anonymous donor funded an April 30 motorcoach trip that about two dozen of the youth made to the Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City, Mo.
"We wanted to give our youth ambassadors some first hand knowledge about the exhibits and the museum," says Beatty. "We wanted them to understand our level of commitment to them and the fact this is a serious effort They got to tour the museum, to hear directly from its president, Bob Kendrick, and to receive some training from staff there. As an added bonus they got to meet two players from the latter years of the Negro leagues."
As an Omaha Public Schools administrator and product himself (1966 Omaha Central graduate), Jerry Bartee is pleased the district is heavily involved in showcasing the exhibits. He says when Beatty asked him to be the organizing committee's honorary chair he couldn't resist because of his own deep connections to baseball: he was scouted by none other than Buck O'Neil and went on to a short career in the minors.
"Obviously I love the game of baseball. I appreciate all the pioneers but particularly the African-American players that paved the way for future generations, including my own," Bartee says. "Negro Leagues baseball was really a rallying point for black America and brought a sense of pride to the black community.
"The historical value of it all is immeasurable. I am so pleased the Omaha Public Schools is a partner in this endeavor. What we hope to accomplish with all this is for parents and grandparents to talk about these times with their children and grandchildren."
Conestoga long ago expressed interest in supporting the museum, so when Beatty asked the school to be a host site, principal David Milan quickly agreed. Milan says the museum serves an "important" function sharing the history of African-Americans in Omaha and beyond. Besides, he says, "the Negro leagues served a great purpose in history and the story needs to be told."
The exhibits are in Omaha as the result of collaborations the Great Plains Black museum has undertaken with the Negro Leagues museum, OPS the Mayor's Office, Douglas County and private enterprise. After a decade of well-publicized struggles the organization has a new board led by Beatty and new life that's seeing it do programming after years of dormancy.
Beatty and Co. received grant funding and in-kind support from multiple sources to bring the exhibits here, including Werner Enterprises transporting the materials for free. It's also a case of two black organizations helping each other, as the Kansas City museum endured its own struggles after O'Neil passed in 2006 and it's only recently rebounded under Kendrick.
Kendrick and Beatty say they've struck a long-term agreement to bring Negro Leagues museum exhibits here annually around CWS time.
"This is a multi-year commitment," Beaty says, adding, "We're very excited about that."
"It's important for us to have these kinds of partnership relations and bridges with other cultural institutions," says Kendrick. "It's going to be great for the museum to have that exposure in Omaha. We're excited about expanding this partnership. This is not a one-and-done thing. We're looking forward to many years of working side- by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with this great organization.
"I think one of the most important aspects of this whole collaboration is the intimate involvement of young people, empowering them not only to learn about Negro leagues history but employing them to share this history with the general public."
"This is a growth opportunity for the kids," says Beatty.
At a February press conference Beatty stood alongside Kendrick, Bartee, Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers in a show of solidarity Omaha's black museum hasn't enjoyed before.
"The museum is trying to reestablish and reassert itself and we wanted to make a statement to the community that the Great Plains Black History Museum is back and we're serious about our mission. Being able to pull something like this off and gather the support needed is a clear signal to civic, community and business leaders that the museum board is serious about its role. This project is a significant and great example of the commitment.
"The museum has been a series of false starts and we're trying to put that in the rear view mirror. There's been too many words passed by the museum and not effort put forth of a substantial nature. Hopefully this will show the community one more effort we're doing among others."
Those efforts include organizing a fall History Harvest with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-sponsoring an April 12 talk by author Isabel Wilkerson. The museum arranged for its collections to be stored and cataloged at the Nebraska State Historical Society. UNL and other historians continue working with the collections. The museum's commissioned J. Gregg Smith Inc. to do a strategic planning process that Beatty says "will give us the definition we need to go forth from an exhibit, programming and facility standpoint."
Kendrick's impressed the Omaha museum is doing programming despite not having a workable site of its own.
"Even though right now they don't have a functioning building they are demonstrating their viability by creating this meaningful opportunity to expose the citizens of Omaha and visitors to the College World Series to the rich history of Negro leagues ball. I think it speaks volumes to their mindset as an institution, to the direction they want to go, and to the inherent value of what they represent."
For exhibit days, hours and admission, call 402-572-9292 or visit www.gpblackmuseum.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.