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Kansas City: an all-star destination of baseball, jazz

The city split by the Kansas-Missouri border is bound by passions for baseball, jazz and barbecue, making it a prime target for Oklahomans looking for a not-too-distant getaway
by Dave Cathey Published: July 1, 2012

This town deserves better than the two winning seasons it's gotten from the Royals in the past 22 years, and its patience pays of on July 10 when the Major League Baseball All-Star game comes to town.

The city split by the Kansas-Missouri border and allegiance to Jayhawks and Tigers is bound by passions for baseball, jazz and barbecue, making it a prime target for Oklahomans looking for a not-too-distant getaway — especially now that it will feature the best baseball its had since the heyday of George Brett.

Because the Royals have had only two winning seasons since 1990, you can be sure this baseball-crazy town will come alive for the All-Star experience.

All-Stars convene at Negro League's birthplace

Baseball's best take the field on Tuesday, July 10, but festivities begin in Kansas City on July 6 with Major League All Star FanFest. The town and Kaufmann Stadium will be a sea of activity for four days.

It could be viewed as baseball giving back to a city that has given plenty to the game, including the birth of the professional Negro Leagues. Rube Foster and a group of team owners met one afternoon in 1920 at the still-standing Paseo YMCA to give life to the Negro National League, the first of the pro baseball leagues for blacks.

The Kansas City Monarchs were the New York Yankees of the Negro leagues. Satchel Paige was the star of not only the Monarchs but all the leagues, which also included Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, and Buck O'Neil. When Jackie Robinson played his first game of professional baseball it was as a Kansas City Monarch. Henry Aaron played on the Indianapolis Clowns.

Thousands of others are memorialized and given their rightful place as bricks in the path that led to the birth of civil rights movement in the Negro League Baseball Museum, which was founded in 1990, in the historic 18th and Vine District.

Bob Kendrick, president of the museum, gave us a stirring tour of the museum, describing both the ideas behind the museum and the story of the leagues with plenty of social context. This is a can't-miss stop for true baseball fans. The museum successfully informs and bolsters the mythos of baseball.

In Kauffman Stadium, you'll find the Kansas City Baseball Hall of Fame, which offers a full history of Kansas City's long-standing love affair with America's pastime.

Commerce native and baseball legend Mickey Mantle came to a crossroads in Kansas City that nearly took him back to the chat piles of Tar Creek.

In 1951, Mantle's rookie year, the New York Yankees returned their slumping phenom back to the Kansas City Blues — the team's AAA affiliate at the time — for more seasoning. But Mantle responded poorly and started to lose confidence so he called his father, Mutt, and made the mistake of saying he wasn't sure he was cut out for pro baseball.

Mutt drove up to Kansas City that day, wasted no time in packing his son's clothes whilst wondering aloud where he'd gone wrong in raising a coward instead of a man. Faced with a life in the lead and zinc mines of Tar Creek, Mantle found his stroke, hitting .311 with 23 homers and 87 RBIs the rest of the way for the Blues.

From wide open town

No part of Kansas City culture is unaffected by jazz music. During Prohibition, Kansas City was known as a wide-open town, jazz echoing from 12th and Vine down to 18th and liquor enforcement something more talked about than done. Kansas City was considered a jazz Mecca in 1920s and '30s, drawing Count Basie, Andy Kirk and Joe Turner to name a few.

Kansas City is now home to the American Jazz Museum, where the sights and sounds of a uniquely American art form come alive. The museum includes interactive exhibits and educational programs plus the Blue Room, a working jazz club, and The Gem Theater, a modern 500-seat performing arts center.

Rare photos, listening stations, memorabilia and personal items tell the stories of jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker. Other exhibits highlight Kansas City's unique contributions to the American medium.

At 17th and Vine, the Museum's Charlie Parker Memorial Plaza features a 17-foot bronze bust of the musician known as Bird.

But jazz is only the foundation for local culture. In the city that boasts more fountains than any other in the world save for Rome, you'll find the arts well represented.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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