By Tom Edwards
When Minnesota businesswoman and philanthropist Roxanne Givens found herself within sight of the historic 1880s Coe Mansion in Minneapolis, it was because she had taken a wrong turn. The stately brick home is in the National Register of Historic Places. Years later, that turn became a fortunate twist of fate. A “For Sale” sign on the property was in the right place at the right time.
Givens believed it would eventually become the museum she wanted to help establish. On June 1, the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center held its grand opening. The 6,500 square feet of exhibit space will have a wide array of educational experiences and exhibits.
My wife Cathy and I were honored to have been given the opportunity to attend the invitation-only event. Seeing sports memorabilia you have spent years collecting on display in a museum so others can enjoy it and learn about that chapter of American history is something every collector should experience.
Approximately two months before the opening, Givens was introduced to me by a mutual friend, Minnesota Twins team curator Clyde Doepner. They visited my sports room to see the Negro Leagues memorabilia I had available for loan to the museum. I was pleased that virtually everything I have in that part of my collection was a fit for the museum to have available for display.
My interest in that aspect of baseball history goes back years. I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., not far from Ebbets Field in 1949 to parents who were Dodgers supporters. Fans of baseball history know the Brooklyn ballpark is where Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier more than 65 years ago.
Having enjoyed baseball since my childhood, I am frequently asked “who is the greatest player you have seen?” When I reply “I don’t know,” I’m not being evasive. By way of explanation, I let people know I’ve seen Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.
That said, there is no doubt as to who the most electrifying player I have seen is – Jackie Robinson. No contest. As a kid, Jackie caught my eye and I told my dad he was my favorite player. My father, a knowledgeable fan, told me there was a time when players of color did not play for Major League teams. At 63, that still amazes me, so as a 5-year-old, it made absolutely no sense. It did, however, stir my interest in Negro Leagues history.
Like a lot of the kids in the 1950s, I collected baseball cards. Years later, I added Negro League items to my Brooklyn Dodgers and Yankees collection. I find Negro Leagues history to be a fascinating and, I believe, an underappreciated facet of the history of the game.
In my case, I didn’t play at the Major League level because I couldn’t hit a curve ball with a guitar. I remember asking Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil if it bothered him he didn’t play against the best players in the world because of his race. I have always thought “How do you know I didn’t?” was a great answer. Buck had forgotten more about the game than many will know on their best day. Looking at the great athletes who played all or some of their baseball careers in the Negro Leagues is an impressive list.
Having established a friendship with artist Christopher Paluso decades ago has been a pleasure on a number of levels. His four-player set of B.I.G. (Blacks Inspiring Greatness) League prints are among the items I have loaned to the museum. Sign me up for great art that features Hall of Fame players Buck Leonard, Oscar Charleston, James “Cool Papa” Bell and Josh Gibson.
I found it interesting when Clyde Doepner told me that he believes Josh Gibson was the greatest player ever. I share that view. At the request of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Christopher did a great poster that encapsulates some of the history of pre-integration baseball. About a dozen books from my collection are also on loan. I am pleased that those who visit the M.A.A.M. will see what is available to read about some of the pioneers of the game. Among my favorites is “I Was Right On Time” by Buck O’Neil. No surprise here, I enjoy the Negro League cards that have been issued in recent years.
Among the other items I have on display are a Wheaties Negro Leagues commemorative box, a ball autographed by Negro Leaguers Ted “Double Duty Radcliffe, Buck O’Neil and others and a Negro Leagues poster that features Satchel Paige that promoted an upcoming game.
It is an honor and a pleasure to have the Minnesota African American Museum give Cathy and me the opportunity to share our interest in Negro Leagues history and some of the memorabilia associated with it. With that, we want to express our sincere gratitude to Roxanne Givens and all those who have committed countless of time and effort to help bring about a museum that has been a vision for so many.
Tom Edwards is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.