In February 1920, the owners of eight independently owned black baseball teams met in Kansas City at the Paseo YMCA and the Negro National League was born. It was not the first all-black baseball league, but it's the one that modernized the negro leagues and it was the last before integration.
The Negro Leagues Baseball centennial is being celebrated this year all over the country. But if it weren't for a Kansas City man who grew up in the same neighborhood as a handful of former players for the Kansas City Monarchs, we might not even know this history.
As a kid in the 1960s, Phil Dixon lived near the Fairfield District of Kansas City, Kansas. He was a huge baseball fan, but nothing he read about baseball history ever mentioned the guys he knew from his neighborhood.
"In the books I was reading, the black players started with Jackie Robinson," says Dixon. "That's where it started for many people. But when you talked to the average fan, they knew better. So I got curious."
More than 500 interviews later, on top of hours spent in libraries reading old newspaper articles on microfilm, Dixon, who juggled his research with a day job as an insurance salesman, published 1992's The Negro Baseball Leagues, 1867-1955: A Photographic History.
It was the first of nine books Dixon has written on Negro Leagues Baseball, putting players' stories front and center, and it's the foundation other baseball scholars have built upon since that time.
"The passion to fill that gap is the reason I still do this today," he says.
Dixon grew up in a world where being black was the norm.
"I went to all-black schools, I played on all-black sports teams, I went to an all-black church, and every day when I woke up, all I saw was black people," he recalls. "Occasionally white people would get lost, and they would come down my street. Whenever we would see a white person coming down, we knew they were lost."
But he began his baseball research with an encyclopedia that came from a white family. His mother, a college graduate, worked for the family as a house cleaner.
"It was the 1960s," Dixon explains. "I was just learning about baseball, and I said, 'I wonder what this encyclopedia says about baseball.' lt had pictures from like 1932. So I said, 'This encyclopedia is old.' But it's what we had and it was given to us by that white family."
He has another childhood memory of integrating a handful of Kansas City restaurants. A white couple by the name of Hughes came to his church and invited people to go with them to white-only restaurants.
"We would be the only black people there," he says. "People would begin to make comments, and the Hugheses would say, 'Don't worry about that, just eat your food.'"
Despite having lived it, Dixon's academic study of history didn't begin until college, when he visited an old black historian looking for help with a project.
"He said, 'What do you know about the Emancipation Proclamation?'" Dixon fumbled through an answer, and the historian opened his office door and said, "Come back when you know about the Emancipation Proclamation."
It was that moment that sent him down a path of formal research. And ultimately, Dixon started filling the gap between recorded baseball history and the history that black people knew.
"The players had the information, but they didn't have an outlet. I wanted to be that outlet," he says. So he talked to not just players, but their grown children and their wives. "If you'd get to one player or one family," he recalls, "they would know about someone else."
He'd drive to St. Louis to meet with Cool Papa Bell, who played for the St. Louis Stars, and Bell's wife.
"People know him as the fastest running baseball player that ever lived. Satchel Paige used to tell the story that he could turn the lights off and get into bed before the room got dark."
Or he'd be reading an old newspaper story, like the one about Chet Brewer, who played for the Monarchs and later did some coaching for the Royals.
"He had a fight with a white third baseman in an all-star game," Dixon says. That moment had been written about, but none of the stories explained the fight. "So I called him up. I said, 'Chet, why did you have the fight? What was going on?' He said, 'Well, he called me a bunch of names.' I was able to get those kinds of interviews."
Those interviews were conducted on road trips across the country, over Dixon's vacation time. And the accompanying genaology research and combing of newspaper articles was done on lunch breaks.
"I'd go to work in the morning, and the mid-day was kind of slow. So I would take my lunch break and go to the library."
Dixon's approach is to write about the players, he says, "because the players are the most important part of the story."
But the story he's talking about isn't just the story of black baseball. It's the story of baseball. These players' stories are part of the history of the sport, not separate from it.
"It was very separate when I first started," he says. "My whole effort has been to combine those histories and make them one history, which is American baseball history."
Phil Dixon spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.