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Former presidents, Michael Jordan and Billie Jean King tip their caps to the Negro Leagues

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Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., was originally scheduled to be in San Francisco this past Saturday as part of Major League Baseball’s celebration of the Negro Leagues’ 100th anniversary. The Giants were to wear throwback Sea Lions jerseys in honor of San Francisco’s representative in the West Coast Negro Baseball Association in 1946, while the rival Los Angeles Dodgers would sport 1947 uniforms in tribute to Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier that year when the franchise was still in Brooklyn.

At other ballparks throughout the country, teams planned to recognize the centennial by wearing a Negro Leagues patch on their uniforms and, in what Kendrick anticipated to be a “watershed moment,” taking a moment for players and fans to tip their caps to those who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1960.

After the novel coronavirus pandemic postponed the baseball season and dashed those plans, Kendrick got creative. With the help of the Athletic’s Joe Posnanski, a longtime columnist for the Kansas City Star who wrote a book about Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil and whom Kendrick considers a brother, he organized a virtual “Tipping Your Cap” campaign to celebrate the Negro Leagues in the absence of games.

Remembering Washington's Negro Leagues dynasty

The campaign, which officially launched Monday and runs through July 23, asks baseball fans to submit a brief video or photo of themselves tipping their caps to and post it on their social media platforms with the hashtag #tipyourcap2020. Four former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — are among the VIPs who have participated, along with Michael Jordan, Billie Jean King, Magic Johnson and a host of current major leaguers.

“I’m tipping my hat to everybody in the Negro Leagues who left a century-long legacy of talent and spirit and dignity on our country,” Obama said before tipping a Chicago White Sox cap in a recorded video message. “So here’s to Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and everybody else, including three brave women who did us all proud.”

Clinton tipped a Chicago Cubs cap in honor of Ernie Banks, who began his career in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs.

“This cap is for Hillary, too, when finally the Cubs won the championship [in 2016]," he said. “Long before that, the Negro Leagues made baseball better and America better.”

“It’s gratifying that the spirit of the Negro Leagues can help unify at a time when our country needs it the most,” Kendrick said in a phone interview. “As we sat and created this idea, I had no idea it would morph into what it has, and I’m not sure the timing could be any better. This virtual thing has turned into something maybe even more meaningful in its own way."

One of Kendrick’s favorite videos thus far is the one featuring four generations of Jackie Robinson’s family, including his wife, Rachel, who will turn 98 next month.

“How cool is that?” Kendrick said. “It gives me goose bumps just talking about it. We’re so blessed to still have Rachel with us. She was Jackie’s rock, and I don’t know if she gets enough credit for her role in that pioneering moment in time.”

Kendrick, who has been president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum since 2011, was looking forward to a year’s worth of in-person tributes. The centennial celebration kicked off in earnest Feb. 13, when MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced a joint $1 million donation to the museum. Part of the funds will go toward the revitalization of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center at the old Paseo YMCA in Kansas City where the Negro Leagues were signed into existence.

“This year was such a big year for us,” Kendrick said. “Every time we come upon one of those milestone events, it hurts a little bit more. But that being said, our story is about resiliency, and the museum embodies that spirit. We’re trying to make the best of what has been a difficult situation.”

On May 2, Kendrick was scheduled to travel to Indianapolis to commemorate the inaugural game of the Negro National League between the Indianapolis ABCs and the Chicago American Giants. The trip was canceled because of the coronavirus, but Kendrick followed through on another reason for his visit. He led a campaign to place a new headstone atop the grave of Negro Leagues legend and National Baseball Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, who began his career with the ABCs, and looks forward to eventually paying his respects in person.

Kendrick said that many of the centennial events scheduled for this year will be pushed to 2021 as part of a program the museum is calling “Negro Leagues 101.” (“The 101 courses are the only courses I passed in college,” Kendrick, an encyclopedia of Negro Leagues history, joked.) The museum itself closed March 14 and reopened June 16. Kendrick said that it’s “great to have life back” in the building and that he was similarly encouraged by the early response to the “Tipping Your Cap” campaign.

“It’s galvanized folks in a way that I did not see coming,” he said. “Not in my wildest dreams.”

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