Wednesday, of course, is the nation’s birthday. But if you are a fan of baseball, barbecue and/or America, you might want to keep the party going until Saturday, with a trip to Kansas City, Mo.
That’s where a chapter in the book on American freedom will be celebrated, with three totems of the country’s identity: baseball, barbecue and jazz.
I suppose I could be referring to the Major League All-Star Game, held there July 10, and to the city’s many barbecue restaurants and its history as a jazz epicenter. But I’m talking about a subset of all that: The Buck, Baseball and Barbecue Benefit for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Buck is John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil , a legendary first baseman in the Negro Leagues who, in 1962, was hired by the Chicago Cubs as the first black coach in the majors. He died in October 2006 at age 94, and is being celebrated as part of the multi-day event coinciding with the All-State Game to draw attention to the museum.
The NLBM was established in the early 1990s. The American Jazz Museum, established a few years later, is housed under the same roof.
On Saturday, author Sharon Robinson, daughter of legendary Jackie Robinson, the first black player admitted to the majors, will read from her work and sign books. That evening, seven barbecue teams will smoke meats for attendees at a fundraising party.
One of the barbecue teams is Washington’s own Pork Barrel BBQ, represented by Heath Hall, who grew up in Missouri and attended law school in Kansas City. Hall is an avid Negro Leagues Baseball fan (and baseball fan generally). “I am unbelievably excited to get a chance to participate in this,” he told me in an interview earlier this summer.
Because of Jim Crow laws, black baseball players were denied the opportunity to play alongside whites in the pros. In 1920, at a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., a meeting was held that resulted in the creation of the Negro National League. Rival leagues in other regions of the country soon followed.
A quarter-century, a Great Depression and a World War later, an African American named Jackie Robinson was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers from the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson was not the first black man to play professional baseball alongside whites. The races played on teams together in the late 1800s. But by the turn of the century, Jim Crow laws separated the races in baseball, as such laws did in so much else in American life.
“It’s the history of this country,” says the museum’s executive director, Bob Kendrick. “It is America at her worst and it is America at its triumphant best. It’s not about adversity. It’s about how their love for this game overcame their adversity.
“Even if you’re not a big baseball fan, you will appreciate this museum,” Kendrick says, “because everything about America is told through baseball and the experiences and accomplishments of these players. Even if you are not a big fan of baseball, you are going to leave this museum with a new appreciation for just how great America really is. It’s an awe-inspiring story.”
If you can’t be in Kansas City this weekend, you might slow-smoke some barbecue and, in spirit, go there just the same.
From the great-but-potentially-disastrous ideas file: Hill Country Barbecue Market in Penn Quarter will provide free delivery to the National Mall. You read correctly: The National Mall. On July Fourth.
“No advance notice necessary,” the release says. “Just call up the restaurant, place your order, give your location on the Mall.”
I applaud the entrepreneurship but wonder how it will work. I mean, there are only about, what, a gazillion people crammed into a relatively small area? “Uh, yeah, I’m in front of the Capitol? I’d like to order some brisket. I’ll be the guy in the red shirt.”
Hill Country says it will deliver by bicycle, to deal with the traffic. In addition to communicating with customers by cellphone, the restaurant has established a series of rendezvous points, which you can view on its Facebook page.
Smoke Signals hasn’t heard anything about a guaranteed delivery time. Nor would I count on one.
Starting Wednesday, Hill Country will deliver to the Mall throughout the summer.