By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“It has drama, it has charm, it has youthful exuberance.”
So enthuses Bob Kendrick about “Legends of the Road,” the locally produced documentary that will be screened at the historic Admiral Theater tomorrow night to raise money to restore its murals.
Most of all, it has history – history that Bob knows well. He is president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, visiting West Seattle to be part of the screening, which is the story of a Chief Sealth (pre-International) High School teacher and his students who made a groundbreaking 5,100-mile bicycle trip at the turn of the millennium to recreate the leagues’ “barnstorming” trips.
That since-retired teacher, Gary Thomsen, was part of our conversation today with Bob and with Clay Eals of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, which is presenting Tuesday night’s event.
Even if you’re not a baseball fan – or history buff – there are reasons to go see it.
For one: Bob described the students’ work as one of the best “experiential learning” projects he’s ever heard of, an example of how history “can be used creatively.”
Here’s the official description of the film, from its website: “… a deeply moving account of 28 public high-school students from Chief Sealth High School … who in 1999-2000 completed an extraordinary research project on a largely unknown baseball phenomenon known as barnstorming. And, then in 2000, re-created a ‘Barnstorming Tour’ to commemorate the 100th anniversary of barnstorming.”
The students planned and carried out the tour – even finding a way to finish it after they started to run out of money – by working with their strengths. They researched, they raised money, they discussed and debated. This is all part of the movie, we’re assured. Gary recalls that when the late great Negro Leagues player and manager Buck O’Neil (1911-2006) visited the school for a reunion, five years after the Sealth students’ barnstorming trip, and many of his other students hadn’t even heard about the leagues: “They were learning about history from a guy who lived it. Buck could talk about racism as well as baseball … as a teacher, it was amazing. They had lots of questions for him.” He’s in the official trailer:
“He had a way of commanding a room,” added Bob. “Kids were drawn to him.” O’Neil also made history as the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball – and that opens up another part of the storyline here:
Some have a misconception that the Negro Leagues were somehow lesser teams with lesser talents, Bob says, but that couldn’t be further from the truth: “As we introduce people to the general history of the Negro Leagues, most folks don’t know about that part of history, so we’re always trying to help substantiate just how important the Negro Leagues were, and just how good they were. The barnstorming aspect helps demonstrate how the Negro Leagues took the product to remote towns and countries that hadn’t experienced this brand of baseball before …” The Sealth students’ project helped with that substantiation, he adds.
And what a history:
(Part of our interview, recorded by SWSHS’s Clay Eals)
“These great stars … When Satchel Paige rolled into town, these towns closed down! … If the town had 1,000 people, 900 were there. … It was that kind of phenomenon. Some people think that if it didn’t happen in the major leagues, it didn’t happen. The museum is there to tell you that it did happen. This project verifies and substantiates it. … Two major leagues were operating simultaneously. One, the major leagues. The other, the Negro Leagues, which did the exact same thing, with the best Black and Hispanic baseball players. The Negro Leagues wouldn’t take a back seat to any league – filled with extremely talented athletes. They might not have been as well-financed, but the play on the field was just as good. Fast, aggressive, daring – they bunted, they stole bases … exciting things that drew a substantial fan base whether it was part of league games or barnstorming around the country.”
“Legends of the Road” is not just the student-filmed story of the ride and the games, but also oral histories that the students recorded: “It really brought the experience back to life for people who might just have read about it.”
And, Bob says with a big smile, “I’m barnstorming – we barnstorm all over the country to take this story and this message, about what this museum represents.” He clearly misses O’Neil, who became “a star … at 82” in the Ken Burns baseball documentary, “with a twinkle in his eye and a smile that lit up the screen. … He lived for another 12 years so he could carry the message. Now we’re trying to carry the message forward (to) keep the legacy alive after the last Negro Leaguer has passed away.”
About 100 are still alive, Bob adds. Many “forgotten heroes … mainstream America missed some of the greatest players in the game. … We’re trying to help people understand this amazing story that I think embodies the American spirit. America didn’t want them to play baseball, but American spirit allowed them to overcome that.”
And though the major leagues and Negro Leagues were separate back in the day, MLB is collaborating with the museum now, with a $1 million donation and new partnership just announced. “I’m still smiling,” Bob says. “We’ve had a longstanding relationship, and it wasn’t the first time they stepped to the plate, but the first time we sat down and strategically said, we want to put down a partnership to address certain things … not being looked at as just another (charity).”
One big thing they’re addressing: “Issues related to the decline of African-Americans playing this great sport.” In the ’70s, the major leagues were more than one-quarter Black … now, that is down to less than seven percent: 62 American-born Black players currently, Bob says.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, he says, can inspire Black athletes to rediscover the sport, via not just the museum in Kansas City but also its traveling exhibitions and other educational endeavors, “where they can walk into this environment and see people who look just like them.” Not just players, but also, Bob points out, owners and managers and coaches – African Americans “did everything to fulfill the business of playing baseball … We want them to be exposed to the other opportunities that they might never have been introduced to otherwise, to know there’s a legacy of being successful. … We want them to fall in love with baseball.”
Bob also hopes to encourage MLB to celebrate its heroes the way the Negro Leagues did in their day. You never forget your heroes, your favorite players, he notes – his, for example, is Hank Aaron (now 83).
But it’s not just about heroes – it’s also about everyone. “I think it’s important for our sport that everyone has the opportunity to participate … it was a blue-collar sport back in its today; today it’s a country-club sport. It gets to be extremely expensive to play … league fees, traveling teams, priced out a lot of kids. Somewhere along the line came a detachment from the African American community with this sport (but) it was THE sport in its day. We have to make baseball again what kids want to instantly think about being a part of.”
Back to the film. More than 15 years in the making, we observe. Gary says one of the reasons he retired from teaching in 2012 was to finish the film.
Clay adds that one of its best parts, he thinks, is the students who were involved 17 years ago now “looking back, contributing their experiences … they are adults now and talking about how meaningful it was to them.”
Bob agrees. “It’s almost better that (they’re talking about it) 17 years later – When you look back, you change as an individual, your thought process (changes) to get that perspective … I think it means a whole lot more.”
Gary points out that all the video in the film was shot by the students, and there were some “candid comments.” You’ll see that in the first part of “Legends of the Road.” And you’ll marvel at what they achieved – “they raised money for this … learned how to write sponsorship proposals. 21 people, 71 days, riding bicycles, without a missed deadline or a missed place. There’s not a lot of professional production companies that could have done that.”
The late Seattle Public Schools Superintendent John Stanford (himself an African American trailblazer) was the inspiration for teaching “opportunities to raise money besides candy sales …
that they were able to uncover this (history) and identify 600 towns where the Black players played … and the old baseball cards …” Gary still marvels at the fact his then-students accomplished so much in what was still the internet’s infancy, doing interviews by phone, for example – and yet they also created a website for the project, in some places during their tour, “digging into the walls to connect the phone line.”
All three men assure us that you will see the determination of the students in “Legends of the Road,” as well as the amazing history on which they shone a light. And Gary points out that “these are not honor-roll kids who did it, just a bunch of (regular) kids – they had a lot of challenges and they met them. You watch this, and part of it is kind of amazing, when you see the classroom and the context,” and Buck O’Neil’s visit. That’s “another reason to watch,” we’re told – his stories.
In all, Gary’s students had at least 70 hours of interviews with the players who barnstormed, and that’s also vital oral history for the Negro Leagues Museum. Bob says, “I get a little emotional every time I see (“Legends of the Road”)” – his old friend Buck sees a photo of one of the Kansas City Monarchs teams he was on, and he realizes he was the only one in the photo who was still alive.
But via projects like this, and the museum in KC, “the legacy lives on.”
Tuesday night, you can help celebrate two legacies – not only that of the Negro Leagues barnstormers, but also that of the Admiral Theater’s historic (1940s) murals – by going to the screening. Bob Kendrick and Gary Thomsen will be there, along with several of Thomsen’s former students, available for questions after the 6:45 pm screening ($20 admission) or at a VIP pre-screening event ($100 donation). Tickets to both will be available at the door, or buy your 6:45 pm ticket online here.