KANSAS CITY, MO. — 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.
The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opened last September. Looking like an enormous glass water slide for Paul Bunyan, the Kauffman Center bridges three of Kansas City's most vibrant neighborhoods — the high-rise urban core of downtown to the north and east; the Crossroads Arts District, a low-rise neighborhood of industrial warehouses that has become a hot spot for artist residencies, galleries, small businesses and shops, to the south; and the Power and Light District, an entertainment center and home to the recently opened Sprint Center, to the northeast.
The tension-based structure is itself a gargantuan work of art. With the Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, and Lyric Opera of Kansas City in residence, The Kauffman Center serves as a second cultural cornerstone with the recently expanded Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art houses a collection of more than 33,500 works of art, from antiquity to the present day. In 2007, its new Bloch Building, designed by Steven Holl, opened to international acclaim. This museum is about a three-day visit all by itself.
Kansas City ranks fourth in the nation for its concentration of visual artists, thanks in part to Hallmark being headquartered there. It also boasts one of the most concentrated gallery districts in the country with more than 60 art galleries in the Crossroads Arts District. Vacant warehouses have been replaced with artist studios, trendy shops, and innovative restaurants, and a First Friday gallery program attracts thousands of visitors every month.
Any discussion about food and Kansas City begins with barbecue. Put plainly, it's a religion in the city of fountains. Great brisket, ribs, or pulled pork can be found other places, but no place celebrates barbecue with such awe, wonder and pride.
If you want the quick tour, start with Arthur Bryant's, move on to Gates Bar-B-Q, then graduate with Oklahoma Joe's.
Arthur Bryant's is the oldest and the most rustic. Its thin, chile-powder rich sauce won't be for everyone, but the burnt ends won't disappoint. Gates is like Bryant's 2.0; clearly old George Gates saw that barbecue could be good business as well as good to eat. He passed the knowledge down to his son Ollie, who now partners with his son George II, who said his family follows old, local barbecue traditions.
“We don't smoke our meats, we barbecue them,” Gates said.
Gates explained how all the meats are cooked over direct wood-fired heat, which is a departure from what is done in other parts of the country — most notably Texas.
The first Oklahoma Joe's opened in Stillwater in January 1996, the result of a partnership between highly successful competitive pitmaster Jeff Stehney and pit-maker Joe Davidson. Jeff and his wife Joy leased a failed diner inside a filling station near their Kansas City home where they started selling their award-winning barbecue that August.
The question everyone wants to know is which is best. This is a little like asking whether Sid's, Robert's or Johnny's makes the best fried-onion burger in El Reno. For me, it broke down like this: Bryant's for burnt ends, Gates for beef sausage, Oklahoma Joe's for ribs and pulled pork. They all do a great job on brisket. The sauce at Bryant's isn't for everyone but I like that it has its own character. Gates and Oklahoma Joe's each served top-notch, palate-friendly sauces from sweet to extra spicy.
When you're done with that, run by the Boulevard Beer brewery for a tasting of this KC original, which is wildly popular across Oklahoma. Might not be a bad idea to bring some burnt ends with you to help wash down all that beer.
After a week in Kansas City in which I only spent half a day traipsing through the Country Club Plaza, which was across the street from the luxurious Raphael Hotel where I stayed, it became clear another week would be well spent. The Raphael offered spacious, elegant lodging plus top-notch food from chef Charles d'Ablaing in Chaz on the Plaza.
Kansas City's proximity to Oklahoma makes it reassuring to know I can spend that extra week without the kind of long-term planning it usually takes to enjoy a vacation.