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Road Scholar: Kansas City, Missouri - Baseball, Barbecue & Jazz

After four hours of rolling past the farms and vineyards of central Missouri, I pulled into a parking lot in Kansas City, about two blocks from Union Station, and received the welcome I wanted – warm July air spiced with the wood smoke that flavors meats for a barbecue-obsessed city. Ours would be a multi-day stay, highlighted by three of my favorite things – Baseball, Barbecue & Jazz.

You’re probably like me. You have a ready-to-go list of places you want to visit and things you want to see. You consult it as soon as someone says "road trip" and you analyze your options once you know how many days you have. You update trip info for listed destinations and add new ones whenever you read something that interests you. You're always updating and adding. It's not a bucket list to cross off places, because you always find reasons to return. Kansas City has been on my list for a few years now, kind of sitting on the back burner because of work and school schedules, the effort of getting out there from here and the time needed to dig into the meat of KC and not just brush over it like a mop sauce.

In the past 18 to 24 months, I read Stanley Crouch’s crackling prose in “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker,” and Larry Tye’s savory “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” and the back burner simmer turned into a conflagration. This summer, with our sons a bit older and more experienced travelers, my wife suggested we head for the City of Fountains.

When I was a kid, my Kansas City experience was different, an absolute blast that made me love the place from the time I was 9, but different – camping east of KC, going to amusements parks and the zoo, hoping we could get to a Royals game or preseason Chiefs game.

This time around, I wanted to get to the soul of the city.

There was no American Jazz Museum and Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City the last time I visited. Those two destinations were high on my list. A morning shower tapered to overcast skies, making our walk around the historic 18th & Vine Jazz District very comfortable before going through the museums. They’re easy to find and even easier to visit because they share the same building. Across the street is the Paseo YMCA, the building in which Rube Foster founded the Negro Leagues and will soon be the Buck O’Neil Center, complete with a massive research center and archives of significant African-American newspapers.

Entering the 18th & Vine District

Entering 18th & Vine

While I knew about Jackie Robinson before I learned details of Negro League baseball history, I’ve spent more time reading and researching the leagues based on my writing projects of recent years. There’s a mystique to Negro League history that appeals to me. Segregation and Jim Crow forced its existence, and its history – though there’s an abundance you can access today – wasn’t chronicled the way white leagues were. I love the “legend has it…” angle that comes into play so often when reading about former players and teams from the earliest days.

Kansas City was home to the iconic Monarchs, the longest-running team in the Negro Leagues, 10-time champions and an organization that sent the most players into integrated baseball – including Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. There was an aggressive style to the way the Monarchs – and all Negro League teams – played, with hit-and-runs, stolen bases and all the kinetic energy I love to see in baseball. But there also was an off-the-field style. Negro League teams had baseball jackets players often wore through towns they visited. The Monarchs had these jackets, but they weren’t to be worn walking around town. They were reserved for the bus ride to the field. Monarch players expected each other to wear a proper suit and hat about town, and rookies quickly learned from veterans before wardrobe malfunctions occurred.

That was one of a hundred different nuggets I picked up inside the museum, which, by the way, features an old turnstile entrance as you begin your time-portal experience. I can’t even attempt to summarize everything we saw. I delved into the storytelling timeline on the murals that marked our path through the museum. It was an instantly engaging combination of baseball and African-American history. Our sons loved the locker room area where uniforms of every Negro League team and unique artifacts were encased in glass. One diorama showed what typical hotel / boarding room arrangements looked like when Satchel Paige was in the league. The cramped size was remarkable, especially when learning the display showed the absolute finest accommodations that were available around the league. The “typical” rooms were even smaller and sparser.

The Negro League Baseball Museum packs a tremendous amount of history into a small space, telling the story of black ballplayers going all the way back to Moses Fleetwood Walker. I loved all of it. For the two hours I spent there, I could spend another two days. Many of the players’ stories were familiar, others weren’t. One section that opened my eyes told the stories of the famous black women ballplayers – Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan. I’ve read some of the history of the white All-American Girls Pro Baseball League but not much of the women who suited up in the final years of the Negro Leagues. I certainly need to dig into that topic more.

I could’ve camped out at the NLBM all day, but we also wanted to see the adjoining American Jazz Museum. As we neared the end of the museum trail, we became party to a press conference held by NLBM President Bob Kendrick, sharply dressed (as always, I understand) in a way any Monarch player would approve. The Heart of America Hot Dog Festival – presented by the NLBM – would be the must-see event in the district in a few weeks, and my sons and I had stumbled on the unveiling of the museum’s signature hot dog for this year – The Roy Campanella, which paid tribute to the Dodger great with a Sicilian meat sauce and peppers ladled over an all-beef frank.

There were plenty of hot dogs for everyone, so we milled around the Field of Legends. While the NLBM is something I wanted to visit and have my sons see, I didn’t expect them to be as engaged as they were. They walked away talking about Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige, with a souvenir Kansas City Monarchs cap in hand.

Across the lobby, the American Jazz Museum entrance led us into an area with a jazz club vibe, and that was before we ever saw The Blue Room beyond the exhibits. After reading through the panels at the NLBM, we enjoyed the more interactive elements of the AJM. You learn about different elements of jazz and the various instruments that contribute to a composition. There are listening stations throughout the museum, along with artifacts and history to read about.

An Ornette Coleman quote on a panel spoke to me:

Blow what you feel –

anything. Play the

thought, the idea

in your mind…

Break away from

the conventions and

stagnation – escape!

One exhibit focused on David Stone Martin’s line art used on 400+ jazz albums from the 1940s through early ‘80s. The STYLE of jazz albums has always struck me and distinguished the music before I even heard it. Other displays and exhibits pointed me toward albums I haven’t heard and need to check out.

There’s plenty to check out in the AJM and my boys enjoyed the hands-on musical experimenting. I got the feeling the AJM truly comes alive with performances in The Blue Room. The three of us were the only ones in there for about 45 minutes on a July weekday, so the energy was low. Maybe I didn’t allow the AJM to stand on its own, and by combining baseball and jazz and doing baseball first, I ran out of steam. Just another reason to return, though.

Near the museum complex, we found the Mutual Musicians Foundation, the birthplace of the jam session. In this building, which has been around since 1904, Kansas City jazz musicians across time have gathered in the overnight haze after their club shows to work out wrinkles in new material, workshop, improvise and anything else they feel like doing with the insiders. I dig the idea of wild sessions where musicians are cutting loose and playing for themselves, all while being open to the public.

If you’re in the 18th & Vine District, you can sit in on the jam sessions Fridays and Saturdays between midnight and 3 a.m. or so in this joint. What an absolute riot that would be…catch an evening show at The Green Lady Lounge and then head a few blocks over to the Mutual Musicians Foundation. With technology being what it is, you can check out these overnight MMF shows through KOJH’s (Kansas City’s Oldest Jazz House) online radio station.

Pour yourself something, sit back and soak up Kansas City.

Pulling out of the district, we stopped by the Paseo YMCA building where a grassy lot on the side of the building is fashioned into a small baseball field with wooden fences and huge murals of Buck O’Neil, Jackie Robinson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell and other significant Monarchs. How cool to have a catch on these grounds, my youngest pitching from the mound to my oldest, positioned behind the plate wearing his Monarchs cap backward as a catcher would.

A couple of other landmarks needed to be found, too. One of them was Satchel Paige’s former home at 2626 E. 28th St. I combed through some Kansas City Star articles to find out about the house and its location. Doing that, I learned that fire (suspected arson, on last report) tore through the house a year ago and repairs need to be made.

Satchel Paige's former home in Kansas City.

There was some talk about receiving government funds to help with the restoration. In my mind, the Satchel Paige House should be another Kansas City landmark that attracts visitors to learn about this man’s tremendous career. From the street, it’s easy to imagine Satchel sitting on that expansive stone front porch visiting with Count Basie and countless other luminaries who lived in or passed through Kansas City. Speaking of, listen to these multiple pieces about the house, its history and its visitors that aired on KMBZ earlier this year. What a strong case for restoring the house and celebrating its former owner.

A few blocks from Satchel’s old house, you’ll find the site of Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium at the corner of 22nd and Brooklyn. I dug up this address in some books that document ballparks throughout the ages, and I knew it had been demolished long ago. I didn’t really expect much except a small plaque.

I was thrilled to see Monarch Plaza, a wonderful collection of panels, plaques and displays that celebrate the Kansas City Monarch greats as well as Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Famers Willie Lanier and Buck Buchanan, who teamed with Bobby Bell on those destructive defenses of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Monarch Plaza, on the former site of Municipal Stadium

Plaques honor the site's history, while construction prepares for its future.

This plaza isn’t just a stand-alone tribute. It’s part of a wonderful urban revitalization plan called Monarch Manor being developed by Entrepreneurs Enterprises. I can imagine Satchel Paige walking to work from his home. And it’s only a few minutes from 18th & Vine. If I were in the market for a Kansas City home, I’d sign up for the model home with the big front porch and settle myself into all that fabulous history and soul.

When I was in that area, I intended to swing by the Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue and the Gates Bar-B-Q north on Brooklyn Ave. near 18th & Vine because they’re Kansas City institutions. I kept imagining the barbecue restaurants in the neighborhood (some long gone) where Charlie Parker and all these other legends popped in for some burnt ends, pulled pork or brisket. But the problem was, I was already stuffed with barbecue. Seems I can’t eat like I used to.

We found an outrageous barbecue restaurant – Q39 on 39th St. – and ended up eating so much each time that I couldn’t even considering fitting in just a small sandwich from Gates or Arthur Bryant’s for the sake of saying I did so. Same thing happened on the day we ate at Jack Stack's in the historic converted Freight House near Union Station. And our evenings were spent at Kauffman (I’ll always call it Royals) Stadium, so we missed opportunities to eat more barbecue in our neighborhood.

Considering this, I have to ask, can we get a relationship between Royals Stadium and these iconic KC BBQ joints so we can dig into good ‘cue at the ballgame? I mean, yeah, there’s concession stand barbecue, but I want that legendary Gates/Arthur Bryant’s name behind it. That’s the only (really minor) thing I felt was missing during my KC trip. Well, that and I don’t understand why our hotel in the Crossroads Art District wasn’t playing jazz over the house speakers. It was some generic, modern, limp playlist that could be played in any hotel anywhere. I wanted to feel Kansas City coming from every corner, you know?

My lack of extensive stomach space is my only true regret, though.

I still owe a visit to Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, a legendary joint inside a gas station on the Kansas side of the city. Don’t let the gas station connection fool you. Well, maybe you should. Lines already snake out of this place, so I don’t need any extra people slowing my chowdown.

There’s so much left to explore in Kansas City, including closer looks at the places I’ve already seen. Thinking about it makes me crave another platter of KC-style burnt ends.