Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick Talks MLB The Show 24

"The Negro Leagues were about fueling dreams."

Games Features baseball
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick Talks MLB The Show 24

One of the underlying draws of sports gaming is getting to both experience and create your own version of history. Legendary athletes are a staple of the genre, but MLB The Show 24 is now in its second year of highlighting the most fraught period in baseball history. Born out of necessity when systemic racism and a national culture of segregation during the “Jim Crow” era kept Black (and many Latino) players from competing in the MLB, the Negro Leagues are a snapshot in time full of stories where men and women overcame the hardships of that point in history just to have the opportunity to play ball. 

MLB The Show 23 introduced the Storylines mode for the first time, and the history of Negro Leagues baseball became the foundation of this innovation. Players are greeted by high quality documentary clips featuring narration from and interviews with Bob Kendrick, the President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, before being immersed in that history by playing as the legend they just learned about. Just after this year’s release of MLB The Show 24, I had the privilege of speaking to Mr. Kendrick about how the partnership between the museum and developers Sony San Diego is bringing this history to life for a new generation of fans. 

“When Ramone Russell and the team [at Sony San Diego] first reached out to me, it was very much exploratory. I think they were trying to temper my expectations,” Kendrick said. “Naturally, I was excited about this, because a number of folks in the gaming community had reached out to me via social media over the years wondering if and when the Negro Leagues would be included in a videogame. So this had always been something that was on my radar screen, but to be honest I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen. Ramone reached out and we started having regularly scheduled meetings. The more meetings we had, the more stories I shared with them, the more real this project became.

“The next thing I know, we had a full-fledged production crew coming to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with them sitting me down in front of the camera saying, ‘okay, go ahead and tell us these stories about these players.’ The ‘23 version was actually supposed to take place in ‘24, but everyone was so excited about the content that we moved the release date up a year,” he said. “I felt like a weight had come off my shoulders when we released the first reveal video back in 2023. I saw the social media excitement, and that blew me away. After the release of the game, it was pretty much verified that we had done something pretty cool because the gaming community’s response has been overwhelmingly positive.” 

baseball Bob Kendrick

One doesn’t necessarily have to play the Negro Leagues storylines in MLB The Show, but look no further than Negro Leagues Baseball Museum attendance figures to see the tangible impact this spotlight is having. After hosting over 7,000 visitors in February of 2022, that number skyrocketed to over 14,000 in February of 2023. MLB The Show 23 announced their partnership with the museum on February 6, 2023, and Bob Kendrick spoke to me about the daily proof of its impact he’s seen since that first reveal.

“All last year, people were coming because they saw the museum in the videogame. That was, to me, one of the ways in which you can already begin to measure the impact that this game has had. The month of February was made free of charge by our friends over at the Kansas City Royals, just as it has been the previous two years, and we saw record attendance this year. Over 16,000 people in the month of February, which is approaching June, July kind of numbers when we’re in our peak visitation season. That was tremendous to see,” he said. 

“Every day on my various social media channels I’m getting messages from people who played the game saying ‘I can’t wait to come to Kansas City to come and visit your museum.’ This is what’s so exciting for me. We’ve introduced this history in a very entertaining fashion, but people are embracing this,” Kendrick said. “I’ll be honest, I was a little surprised. I thought that they would love the players. I wasn’t sure how they would embrace the stories, and they love the stories. They want more stories, and I think it’s prompted them now to say ‘I wanna learn more about the Negro Leagues,’ because now we’ve kind of piqued your interest and wet your appetite about this story.

“I’ve brought it to you where you can engage with it, and now you wanna learn more, and to me that’s what makes this game have such a meaningful impact,” he continued. “Through this videogame, we have introduced the Negro Leagues to millions of young people and young adults who likely would have never known about the history of the Negro Leagues, or even for that matter maybe not even cared about the history of the Negro Leagues until they got it in this videogame. That is more young people, young adults who have been connected to this game than has walked through these turnstiles over the 30 plus years that this museum has been in operations. That’s the impact.” 

While there’s no doubt players enjoy taking these legends out on that virtual field, their stories are the true diamond in MLB The Show. From last year’s tales of Jackie Robinson competing in the Negro Leagues before breaking the MLB’s self-imposed color barrier to the iconic pitching prowess of Satchel Paige, the stories are what captivate us. One of this year’s most memorable tales centers on the power of Josh Gibson, and Kendrick explained some of what made him so special. 

“The power that Josh had seems almost mythical like, but it was very real. I tell my guests all the time [about] that ball that he hit that they estimated to travel over 600 feet, and that his steroids were ham hocks and collard greens. The man, as we say from Georgia, was just country strong,” Kendrick said.  “He would hit that ball and hit it a long way, but the thing you admire about Josh is that he wasn’t a great power hitter. He was a great hitter with power. So, we’re talkin’ about a compact swing, but he swung a 40-ounce 41-inch bat. So you’ve almost got to be compact with that kind of swing, but that also I think helps give you an impression of just the tremendous power generated by this man. I still marvel at the pictures of him.” 

To provide a sense of scale, Babe Ruth holds the MLB home run distance record with a 575-foot moonshot in 1921, and we know at least one bat he used in 1921 was just 36 inches in length and weighed 44.6 ounces. While MLB regulations still allow bats to be up to 42 inches long today, modern players rarely use anything bigger than 34 inches and no MLB player has used a bat larger than 36 inches. As for weight, modern bats are usually no more than 35 ounces. While heavier bats weren’t uncommon during Gibson’s era, no one was using quite that much bat and hitting a 600-foot rocket out of the ballpark. 

“When you look at the pictures of Josh and he’s swingin’ that big 40-ounce 41-inch bat, he’s not choking up. He’s got it gripped down below the knob, but he didn’t take that long looping swing like you see a lot of power hitters today. He was short, quick, and compact to the ball. The ball just seemed to explode off his bat,” Kendrick explained. “The late, great Buck O’Neil said the ball just made a different sound coming off [Gibson’s] bat, a sound that he only heard three times. The first time, he said he heard it from Babe Ruth. The second time he says it was in DC and the Monarchs were playin’ the Homestead Grays in Griffith Stadium. They’re out giving batting practice, and he hears that sound from where they were up changing clothes. Said he rushed onto the field, and there was Josh Gibson hittin’ that ball, and he doesn’t hear that sound again until he’s scouting the Kansas City Royals for the Chicago Cubs. The Royals are taking batting practice, and he heard that sound again from Bo Jackson. The crack of the ball off of Gibson’s bat was just different. I’m sure there are folks who doubt that he hit one that long. I don’t, because the power was tremendous.” 


While he was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022 and was one of eight Negro Leagues legends featured in MLB The Show 23, Buck O’Neil was also a founder and the driving force behind the establishment of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. After a career that included signing eventual Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, and Lee Arthur Smith as a scout and later becoming the first African American coach in MLB history, Buck O’Neil became the steward of these Negro Leagues stories both with the museum and as part of Ken Burns’ iconic 1994 documentary series Baseball. When we spoke, one of the toughest stories Bob Kendrick recounted was from early in O’Neil’s career. 

“There were teams that were actually the Zulu Cannibals. This was—it’s complicated. I tell people all the time that the Negro Leagues are fascinatingly complicated,” Kendrick began. “So, the Zulu Cannibals would actually dress in grass skirts. They would put war paint on, and then they would carry African names. Buck O’Neil played for the Zulus, and Buck was a tremendously proud man, very self-assured individual. And I think his only baseball regret was that he had demeaned himself by playing for the Zulus, but at that time you’re a young ballplayer trying to make a name for yourself. You’ve got a chance to play professional baseball and get paid for it. You didn’t think about how demeaning that actually was, and to add insult to injury, these were basically white promoters who were perpetuating this stereotype. But here’s the kicker: people came out to see them. People were comin’, and that’s why they did it. 

“The Zulu Cannibals would ultimately become the Ethiopian Clowns, and then you would finally see the Indianapolis Clowns. So they started to move away from the grass skirts thing. They took on a more Harlem Globetrotter-ish kind of routine with the Indianapolis Clowns. Now there were very serious baseball players who were playing with the Indianapolis Clowns, but think about what we’re seeing right now with the Savannah Bananas,” he said. “The Savannah Bananas are fillin’ up ballparks all over the country. They started playing in Minor League ballparks. They just filled up the ballpark in Houston, first Major League stadium that they’ve played, and they put over 40,000 people in there to see this Indianapolis Clowns style of play that they’ve taken to a whole ‘nother level. So even to this day, people are still comin’ to see that kind of baseball antics that is so engaging of the fans. 

“I talk to people all the time, and some of their fondest memories were to go see the Indianapolis Clowns, but the Black press by and large hated the Clowns because they were still perpetuating what [the Black press] thought of as a stereotypical depiction of Black folks. But fans were coming out to see them. They wanted to see Goose Tatum. They wanted to see Richard King Tut, and the other great Clowns,” Kendrick said. “But by the same token, Henry Aaron’s career began with the Clowns. Sam Hairston, who is the grandfather of former Major Leaguer Jerry Hairston Jr. and Scott Hairston, both former Major Leaguers. Sam’s sons played in the Major Leagues. They’re from multiple generations of great Hairston players who played for the Indianapolis Clowns. Oscar Charleston, whom some believe to be the greatest player not in just Negro Leagues history but in baseball history, managed for the Indianapolis Clowns. So again, it just depends on whose purview you’re looking through to determine whether it was good or bad, but it was successful.” 

One major factor in the success of the Negro Leagues that MLB The Show 24 has paid homage to is the importance of historically Black newspapers and journalists in preserving this history. Many records only exist today because of their work during that era, but Kendrick explained how they were also the driving force behind the organization and formation of the Negro Leagues. 

“What little we know about the Negro Leagues is basically done so because of the Black press. They were the voice. Mainstream media essentially ignored the Negro Leagues. You might get a box score here and there, but by and large it was ignored by mainstream media. Had it not been for the Black press, the great Black papers. Here in Kansas City, the Kansas City Call still produces a weekly African American paper. The Pittsburgh Courier, the Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender. They were the voices of the Negro Leagues, and they carried that message out,” he explained. “I mean, a paper like the Pittsburgh Courier was in essence USA Today before there ever was USA Today. It was as much a national paper as it was a local to Pittsburgh kind of paper, and so that was how a lot of Black folks got news in general, but particularly about these great Negro Leagues teams, because it went much deeper than just a box score.

“Those great writers, Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy, those guys became kind of a caretaker to this history. They were the voices of this history, and the Black press played a tremendous role in pushing for the formation of the Negro Leagues so that it would have an organized body that would be essentially mirrored right after Major League Baseball. That is what ultimately fueled the opportunity for Rube Foster to pull together those eight independent Black baseball team owners who met here in Kansas City to charter a new African American baseball league. The prevailing feeling by the Black press was that in order for Black baseball to survive and thrive, it needed an organized structure,” Kendrick said. “It really was the Black press that pushed for the formation of the Negro Leagues which they were able to accomplish on February 13, 1920 in Kansas City at the Paseo YMCA where Rube Foster chartered his new Negro National League. Now interestingly enough, it would be that same Black press that would push for the integration of Major League Baseball, which is what in essence put the Negro Leagues out of business.” 

While Jackie Robinson broke the MLB’s self-imposed color barrier in 1947, it was a slow process as the Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate more than a decade later in 1959. During those final years of the Negro Leagues, the MLB arrival of Hank Aaron left an opening on the Indianapolis Clowns that was filled by Toni Stone, the first woman to play in a professional baseball league. Over 70 years after she made history in the Negro Leagues, Bob Kendrick spoke to us about how Toni Stone is doing that again by being the first female player ever featured in MLB The Show


“Toni Stone’s inclusion, and the fact that you can now have women play in the game, that to me was a bold giant step for MLB The Show and I am glad to see how well that aspect of the videogame has been embraced also. The women’s connection to the Negro Leagues is something that we are inherently proud of, and we love celebrating that piece of history because it’s so eye-opening for so many people who come to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Within the museum experience is a display called Beauty of the Game, and it celebrates the three pioneering women, of course Toni Stone being the first of those three, Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson, Connie Morgan, along with the women who were also owners and executives of Negro Leagues teams,” Kendrick said.

“When young girls walk through the museum, and they see that exhibition Beauty of the Game. The majority of them have heard nothing more than ‘one day a woman will play in the Major Leagues,’ and then you encounter these three professional women ballplayers who competed with and against the men. As I oftentimes say, that one day has already happened. We are waiting for it to happen again. It has happened now in the videogame, it’s only a matter of time before it happens in professional baseball,” he said. 

“It speaks to how progressive the Negro Leagues were. In essence, they didn’t care what color you were, and they didn’t care what gender you were. Can you play? Do you have something to offer? And I think we would both agree that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Kendrick said. “The Negro Leagues were about fueling dreams. For those young girls who’ve been told they can only play softball, they come into the museum and now they see, wait a minute, it is possible that I can play professional baseball with the guys, if I choose to, if I have the ability to do so, and that’s vitally important. I think Toni would be so inherently proud of that aspect. She’s just doing what ballplayers do, they play ball, but I know that she would be very proud that her place in history is also making history in this current day in which we live.” 

The acceptance of the Negro Leagues continues to make an impact today, as the Black queer character Max Chapman in the TV series A League of Their Own is based in part on the experiences of Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, and Connie Morgan. During the research process on that show, the creators spoke to Bob Kendrick to help them incorporate the real history of the Negro Leagues into their own storylines, and Kendrick talked to me about the value of this representation. 

“It was very important to see these characters come to life in a TV series. It speaks to the inclusive nature of what the Negro Leagues represented both on and off the field. I hope that the storylines that were depicted in the TV series, the work that we do here at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, that our guests, when they walk away from this experience, they walk away embracing why diversity, equity, and inclusion are to be so valued and why they are pillars towards building a bridge for tolerance and respect. Which is where we’re still trying to grow as a society, and it’s all seen through the lens of these courageous athletes who call the Negro Leagues home,” he said. “To see that be carried out and moved into a TV series where really those characters come to life to some extent in that TV series, it made us all tremendously proud. When members of the crew and some of the directors and producers came out to Kansas City to screen a couple of the shows, it was tremendous. They’re part of our family, and we’re very proud of what took place.” 

As our conversation wrapped up, I took a moment to ask Bob Kendrick about his own journey. Not unlike the great Black press that played such a crucial role in the existence and preservation of the Negro Leagues, it was Kendrick’s newspaper career at The Kansas City Star that brought him in as a part of the story itself. After three decades with the museum, Kendrick reflected on what the latest chapter in this journey has meant to him. 

“I still pinch myself, because I stumbled into what has now become a career and one of the most gratifying things I think I could’ve done, either personally or professionally. I started here at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as a volunteer way back in 1993, and I fell in love with the story the minute I was introduced to this fledgling museum. Not only did I fall in love with the story, I fell in love with the players who made this story,” he said. “For me now to essentially be a steward of this story, to move from being a volunteer for an organization that I fell in love with to now trying to lead this organization that I wholeheartedly believe is one of the most important cultural institutions in the world and one of the nation’s great civil rights, social justice institutions. It seemed, number one highly improbable, but it also makes for a tremendous journey for me again personally and professionally. 

“I am so blessed to do this work and blessed to be a voice to champion what the Negro Leagues were all about and of course what this museum represents. Now, to be honest, I saw myself doing a lot of things in my life, but I never thought I’d be in a videogame. This videogame has made me a household name in the gaming community. We had, I’m not lyin’, scores of people, primarily young folks and young adults, who came to the museum because they saw the museum in the videogame, but the kicker for me was they wanted to meet the guy that was tellin’ the stories in the videogame,” Kendrick said with a laugh. “The thing that drives this story is passion and love of the game. That’s the message that I share with my current Major Leaguers when they come to visit the museum. That’s the common bond that they share is love of the game. And I do believe that there was a misnomer, may still be, that young people don’t care about history. They do care about history, but it’s incumbent upon me to make sure that I deliver this history in a medium and mode in which they are accustomed to getting their information. 

“Someone said, ‘how do you bring the Negro Leagues to life?’ You put ‘em in a videogame, ‘cause Negro Leagues baseball history hadn’t been made in over six decades, but the life lessons that stem from this story of triumph over adversity are just as meaningful today as they were six years ago,” Kendrick said. “And the players deserve to be in a videogame. If anyone deserved to be in a videogame it would be the players from the Negro Leagues, because the way they played the game I guess you could say was videogame-esque. The style. The flair. I mean, how could you not have Satchel Paige in a videogame, or the power of Josh Gibson, and these legendary stars?” 

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is currently raising money to support their expansion by building the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, and you can donate directly through their website. MLB The Show 24 is available now through all videogame retailers, and Sony San Diego will donate $1 to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for every purchase of the Negro Leagues Edition, Digital Deluxe Edition, and MVP Edition this year. 

Patches Chance is a freelance writer for Paste Magazine covering tech and entertainment. Her work has also been featured at Heavy, Fanbyte, The Loadout, Daily DDT, and Ginx. You can follow him @patcheschance on Twitter and Instagram.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin