One of the winter meetings’ highlights was meeting Bob Kendrick, the president of Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. At the mention of Shohei Ohtani, Mr. Kendrick’s face lit up, as it does on most topics related to baseball, and he talked about the parallels and links between the Negro Leagues, Japanese baseball and the majors.
While virtually every story about Ohtani’s remarkable season included a note that he was the last player since Babe Ruth to have done “X” as a pitcher and “Y” as a hitter. But that is the major league version of the story. It’s a big story, but it’s not the whole story.
“It’s a very important part of baseball and American history and a forgotten chapter of baseball and American history and that’s the rich, powerful and compelling story of the Negro Leagues which is documented, substantiated and celebrated at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City,” Kendrick said.
“It (Ohtani’s arrival) gave us a chance to talk about those great two-way players who played in the Negro leagues. I’m hoping this season when they come to town that we may be able to get him by the museum. There’s this great history between the Negro leagues and Japan that most people don’t know.”
“The Philadelphia Royal Giants go to Japan in 1927, well before Ruth and his all-stars. We’ve got a wonderful game day magazine. We actually have an original but we have a version of it hanging on the wall, and I showed the original to Ichiro when he visited the museum.”
“He’s a fan of the game. He’s a historian of the game. So I don’t think it’s a surprise that the Negro Leagues would appeal to him. The first time he came to the museum, he snuck in and we didn’t even know he was there. One of the clerks in the gift shop saw the credit card slip where he had bought some stuff.”
Suzuki may not look like the guy who attends SABR meetings, but he pays attention to detail. This is evidenced by Suzuki honoring the history of old-time star George Sisler and reaching out to his family when he broke Sisler’s single-season hit record.
Kendrick said Suzuki was also drawn to the museum because of his bond with the museum’s founder, former Negro League star Buck O’Neil.
“When Buck O’Neil passed away, who sent flowers? Ichiro Suzuki,” Kendrick said. “The next year his translator called and said they wanted to meet with me. We sat in a conference room and started to describe his admiration for Buck. He goes into his bag and writes a significant personal check for the Negro Leagues Museum in memory of his friend Buck O’Neil. They were two kindred spirits bonded by the great game of baseball.”
“Probably, the reason that Ichiro and Buck hit it off so well is because Buck could understand the skepticism (about Ichiro). The Negro League players heard that same skepticism. Can you do that (get hits) over here? So what does he do here? He puts 3,000 more hits up.
“That was the same air of skepticism that followed those Negro League players as they moved into the major leagues. You put those numbers up in the Negro Leagues but the world just seemed to believe that the highest level you could play was the major leagues, so can you do that in the major leagues. So what do they do? They do that in the major leagues.”
Kendrick said the attraction went beyond that. Like Ohtani, when Suzuki arrived in the majors in 2001, people were saying he was a throwback to the days of Ty Cobb. A player whose game was everything but home runs. But Suzuki’s game would have been right at home in the Negro Leagues.
“Ichiro talked about how he admired Buck’s style,” Kendrick said. “Buck hung out at the ballpark all the time. When they were taking BP, Buck would be chatting up everybody, showing love like he always did.”
“He (Ichiro) was a Negro Leagues player. He would have been a big star in the Negro Leagues. There’s no question about it. And we don’t say that lightly, because of the way they played the game in the Negro Leagues. The way he played, hitting the ball in the gap, taking the extra bases, the speed, the defense, the style. He has flair. He absolutely could have played in the Negro Leagues.”
Ohtani, too, would have fit in, Kendrick said. And he issued an open invitation to the Los Angeles Angels star.
“It would be awesome to have Shohei come in,” he said. “And again amidst that same level of skepticism, here comes this kid, two-way playing in Japan, big-time star. Can you do it in the major leagues? He does it in the major leagues. But his success also led us down the path where others wanted to talk about the great two-way players of the Negro Leagues. Ohtani is not new.”
“When we started talking about guys like Bullet Joe Rogan, Leon Day, Martin Dihigo, the list just went on and on of the great stars in the Negro Leagues who were two-way players. You have to understand that the roster sizes in the Negro Leagues weren’t as large as they were in the major leagues, so you needed those guys who were versatile. So the Negro Leagues had their fair share of great two-way players.”