When the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was founded in 1990, it was located in a one-room office in the historic Lincoln Building in Kansas City, Mo., across the street from where it operates today. The original office, located on the third floor, consisted of a conference room table and a few photographs on the wall. Early organizers, a group that included John “Buck” O’Neil, took turns paying the monthly rent to keep the office open while dreaming of one day being able to open a permanent home to honor the baseball heroes whose legacies they wanted to maintain.
Bob Kendrick, the museum’s president and chief storyteller, started as a volunteer with the organization in 1993, but over the last 30 years the museum and its mission have become his passion. O’Neil, Kendrick’s mentor, oversaw the museum’s move to its 10,000–square-foot home in 1997, and Kendrick’s goal was to continue to share the stories and grow the institution when he became president in 2011.
Neither O’Neil nor Kendrick could’ve imagined how far that passion would reach.
In February, it was announced the popular video game “MLB: The Show ‘23″ would include the Negro Leagues in a feature called “Storylines.” The game is scheduled for release March 28.
“We have to adapt into relevance,” Kendrick told the Tribune. “Negro League Baseball has not been played in over six decades, yet the life lessons that stem from this story of triumph over adversity is just as meaningful today as ever before, but it also becomes incumbent upon how we connect with that ever-changing generation of young people.”
The Negro National League (NNL) was founded Feb. 13, 1920, at a meeting with the owners of the top independent Black baseball teams at the Paseo YMCA at Eighth and Vine in Kansas City. The meeting was organized by Andrew “Rube” Foster, a former pitcher and owner/manager of the Chicago American Giants, after he had published a series of columns in late 1919 and early 1920 titled “The Pitballs of Baseball” in the Chicago Defender — then the paper of record for African Americans throughout the Midwest. In his column, Foster laid the foundation for a more stable, organized Black baseball environment in segregated America. The NNL proved that Black baseball was a viable business with elite players.
But with the integration of Major League Baseball in 1947, the clock was ticking for Negro Leagues. They eventually folded, as their talent and fans left for MLB. As the years have passed since the existence of such leagues, much of their impact and history have been forgotten or ignored, and most of the players have died in anonymity.
For decades, historians and avid baseball aficionados have worked to bring the stories of the Negro Leagues back to fans of all ages.
Then Ramone Russell had an idea.
About 18 months ago, Russell, a product development communications and brand strategist at Sony Interactive Entertainment, and his team at Sony’s San Diego studio decided “now’s the time” to execute a project he had wanted to do for a very long time. But they had to answer one nagging question before embarking on the journey to include the Negro Leagues into the popular video game: “How do we do this the right way?”
“That was paramount. We knew we didn’t just want to throw a Satchel Paige or Buck O’Neil just into the game,” Russell explained. “That probably wouldn’t feel right, and 85-90% of our player base would have no idea who the hell they are. We knew there needs to be some type of appropriate education done.”
The introduction of Storylines marks the beginning of a multiyear partnership between Sony and the Negro Leagues Baseball Musem. The feature attempts to bring the Negro Leagues to life and “introduce a new group of Negro League legends and their stories to pay rightful tribute to these mostly unknown baseball superstars.”
Season 1 includes eight players: O’Neil, Paige, Foster, Hilton Smith, Jackie Robinson, Martin Dihigo, Hank Thompson and Josh Donaldson. Video game players will be able to learn individual stories through “minidocumentaries” and even play in a Negro League ballpark. Negro Leagues players featured in the game were chosen by a combination of Kendricks and the team at Sony.
For Russell, the educational component was key.
“I think it’s important that history is taught and it’s taught in the right way,” he said. “That’s something that’s very difficult to do, especially in a video game.”
And that started with a mission statement. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s is to “educate, enlighten and inspire.” So Russell said his goal was “about bringing more exposure to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and these players.”
The project began with an email from Russell to his boss, the director of production at Sony, and after a handful of emails and Skype calls, he reached out to Kendrick.
“After talks with Bob, we kind of realized, ‘Oh, it’s Bob’s work. Bob should tell these stories,’” Russell said.
“There are no Negro Leagues historians on my team. There are no baseball historians on my team and tech in general isn’t that diverse. We’re no different. We’re making a lot of changes to correct that from a studio level and a company level.”
“It really started with Bob and little Black kids who’ve never heard of these individuals. How do we create a feature that resonates with them, but also resonates with a 12-year-old white kid who’s from Cincinnati, Ohio. Because when you tell human stories, that’s the tie that binds, the string that connects all of us is the humanity of it.”
One night while driving, Russell found himself thinking about how much he wanted this project to be meaningful. He was listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues’’ when he was inspired to create a playlist for Storylines. He wanted the project “to have a soul,” which meant making music a character within the game. It was a lightbulb moment, he said. The game features a soundtrack Russell put together.
With the completion of the project, Russell and the team at Sony have, in a way, written themselves into the continuation of the Negro Leagues’ storied history. While it wasn’t his intention, it’s a role Russell is proud of.
This new chapter — being included in a popular video game — is part of the museum’s commitment to being both engaging and interactive, Kendrick said, and he is hopeful a new generation of fans will fall in love with the players he has come to know and love himself.
“At the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, what we all understand is that the museum is bigger than we are,” Kendrick said.
Russell agreed with the bigger goal, saying every detail of “Storylines” had to be about highlighting the museum, not individuals working on the project.
“I want to make sure when they play this they feel the right way because this is a celebration, and that’s really important to this project is that we are celebrating a part of American history and baseball history that not a lot of people know about and that they should know about,” Russell said.