Watching them play was a thrill

Buck O'Neil (from left), Ted Rasberry and Bullet Joe Rogan in an undated photo.

The Kansas City Star opinion

In the early 1950s, about a year after I joined the sports staff of The Star, I was assigned to cover a Negro Leagues baseball game between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns. It was played at Municipal Stadium (at the time known as Blues Stadium), which stood at the corner of 22nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue.

I hadn’t realized that it was going to be such a spectacular event. The old ballpark was packed, as more than 15,000 people from the black community took advantage of a pleasant Sunday afternoon and showed up to watch two of the league’s better teams clash. Tom Baird, owner of the Monarchs, and I must have been conspicuous as the only white people in the crowd. That didn’t matter. We were there to see a ballgame.

You didn’t see people wearing jeans and T-shirts. They were dressed in their Sunday best — suits for the men, fine dresses for the ladies. The Monarchs were mainly a traveling team, so it was a special occasion when they hit town for a big game.

The Monarchs were managed by Buck O’Neil, who later became famous as an ambassador for baseball. The Clowns were managed by Oscar Charleston, one of the greatest of the Negro League players. O’Neil and Charleston were in their 40s at least, but both played first base and showed that their skills hadn’t diminished as much as you might expect.

As I recall, the Clowns won the game 6-4. But the best player on the field perhaps belonged to the Monarchs. Ernie Banks, who would soon launch a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Cubs, stood out at shortstop.

The teams weren’t as star-packed as they would have been in earlier years. Some of the league’s best had moved into the majors after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. But those left behind put on an entertaining game and awaited their chances to join Robinson, Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and others in the big leagues.

The entertainment at the Monarchs-Clowns game wasn’t confined to baseball. In the seventh inning, there was a break in the play and several players came to home plate and put on a dancing exhibition. The crowd roared as the players showed their steps. There was still a buzz in the stadium after play was resumed for the final two innings.

In the ensuing five years, Baird sold the Monarchs and the Negro Leagues would shut down for good. Municipal Stadium would linger as a temporary home for the Royals and the Chiefs before being razed. Only the memory of a pleasant Sunday afternoon watching Buck’s Monarchs play remains.

Bill Richardson covered sports for The Star from 1951 to 1995.

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