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Negro Leagues Museum hopes All-Star Game means a grand slam for attendance

Bob Kendrick has been waiting for All-Star week since he returned to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as president more than 15 months ago.Now, with the festivities days away, the Major League Baseball TV network has come to shoot footage. Reporters from national publications have been calling. Kendrick appears calm and ready.

He knows what’s at stake for a museum that less than two years ago was surviving on reserves from better years. The All-Star Game could boost visitors to unprecedented levels. It could generate much-needed revenue. It could turn the world’s eyes to a museum that defines the heritage of baseball in the city and the country.

The next Kansas City All-Star game might not come for another 30 years.

“You don’t get a second chance,” Kendrick said. “You’ve got to get this right.”

Since its creation in the early 1990s, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has memorialized the Negro National Leagues, born in Kansas City in 1920 in response to Jim Crow laws that would keep blacks out of the major leagues for nearly the next 30 years.

And it’s no secret, Kendrick said, that the museum was losing money when former President Greg Baker resigned in the fall of 2010 and Kendrick was appointed president in March 2011. After a close board vote, Baker had been appointed museum director in 2008, and many at the time said Kendrick, who had been volunteering or working with the museum since 1993 and had a close relationship with museum founder Buck O’Neil, should have gotten the position.

Today, Kendrick doesn’t point fingers. It was a perfect storm, he said, of the museum’s recent struggles. O’Neil had died, the economy was plummeting and the transition of leadership was perhaps “muddier” than it needed to be.

Kendrick said he realized he had two great opportunities to reverse the museum’s fortune: O’Neil’s 100th birthday celebration, which raised money and regained support last November, and the All-Star Game.

“We are fighting our way out of this, but we are positive,” Kendrick said.

He expects revenue from the influx of All-Star visitors will push the museum’s finances into the black for the year.

Still, the Negro Leagues museum in the Jazz District is more than a mile from downtown. One of Kendrick’s primary concerns has been how to get people to 18th and Vine.

It helps that the city is touting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as a featured attraction.

Rick Hughes, president of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, said the city has featured the museum prominently on the Visit KC website and sponsored the Buck’s BBQ and Baseball fundraising event Saturday. They’ll sell admission tickets at their FanFest booth at Bartle Hall.

“There is quite a bit of emphasis,” Hughes said. “We’re not selling tickets for anyone else.”

The city also has contracted a FanatiKCs Fun Trolley, a nine-stop shuttle in the downtown area that will transport visitors to and from places like River Market, Crown Center and the Jazz District at 18th and Vine, with its American Jazz Museum and its restaurants.Hughes said the city’s specific efforts to push visitors to 18th and Vine stem from a desire to expose people to a unique tribute to baseball.

“It’s such an intimate part of Kansas City history,” he said.

Thoughts of the crowds keep Kendrick up at night. Many of the more than 120,000 people projected to flock to the city for All-Star events are expected to visit 18th and Vine.

But no one is sure exactly what the numbers will be.

“You literally are preparing for the unknown,” Kendrick said. “You don’t know what a lot is.”

The museum hopes to speed up the ticket process by holding advance sales, setting up electronic ticket stations and creating opportunities for visitors to buy tickets at the museum’s own FanFest exhibit.

The museum has also spent $100,000 on renovations, replacing carpets and upgrading technology. Last week, a new exhibit opened called “They Were All Stars,” celebrating Negro League players who went on to become Major League All-Stars. Several events, such as an All-Star Game watch party co-sponsored by the American Jazz Museum, are also planned for the week.

Others in the community have rallied behind the museum as it prepares for its golden opportunity.

A new Negro Leagues Museum iPad app, developed for free by the Kansas City-based software company RareWire, will allow people all over the world to experience the museum’s history.

RareWire President Kirk Hasenzahl said that his staff is made up of Kansas City baseball fans who were excited to develop an app that would showcase one of their favorite Kansas City attractions.

RareWire will take a small portion of the app’s profits to cover costs, he said, but the rest will go back to the museum. The app can be purchased on iTunes for $3.99.

“The museum is an awesome thing that we are lucky to have that I think people forget sometimes,” Hasenzahl said. “We are all proud to have it in Kansas City.”

While the baseball museum may bring visitors to 18th and Vine, the All-Star Game promises opportunity for many who do business in the Jazz District.

“I’d like to think this is everyone’s moment in the sun,” said Greg Carroll, chief executive officer of the American Jazz Museum. Carroll said the Jazz Museum, which shares a space with the Negro Leagues Museum, is stocking up on museum merchandise as well as food and drink for the Blue Room, the museum’s jazz club. It’s expanding options for patrons to buy tickets and will offer a combination ticket for visitors to see both museums. Like the Negro Leagues museum, it’s planned a week of All-Star events, most of which are performances held in the Blue Room.

“We all acknowledge that this is a major event surrounding America’s favorite pastime,” Carroll said. “But everyone is getting an opportunity to offer great patron experiences.”

Andrea Shelby-Bartee, general manager of the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Juke House, is ready for the traffic the museums might bring.

She said the restaurant has upped its programming and changed its radio advertisements.

“We are all just pretty excited to have the opportunity to showcase our district,” Shelby-Bartee said.

It’s a celebration of players like O’Neil, who played and went on to become the first black coach in major league history, that Kendrick most wants to showcase.

Enter the museum’s exhibit doors, he said, and you see it almost immediately — that dimly lit, almost eerie diamond with the life-size legends, frozen in time and cast in bronze. But the field is purposely separated from you until you walk through the entire exhibit, Kendrick said. You have to take in history before you experience it.

“By the end,” Kendrick said. “It’s almost victorious.”