Theatre for Young America Celebrates Negro Leagues in Expanded Third Production of ‘Fair Ball’

Opposite: “Fair Ball: Negro Leagues in America,” an original musical play, features songs composed and performed by Danny Cox, pictured in front of a Negro Leagues mural at 1832 The Paseo. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Music by Danny Cox Accompanies More Stories, More Characters, More Overlooked and Nearly Forgotten Histories

Delayed due to the pandemic, Theatre for Young America is finally able to present its revamped production of “Fair Ball: Negro Leagues in America.” 

This is the third production of the play, and each time it’s been expanded to include more stories, more characters, more overlooked and nearly forgotten histories. The expansion is partly funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

The idea for “Fair Ball” started in the 1990s, when the Negro Leagues Museum was just a one-room office off 18th Street. That’s when TYA Co-founder and Executive Director Gene Mackey first learned about the NLB and first met the legendary John “Buck” O’Neil. 

The first production was in 2004, called “Monarchs.” 

Mackey wrote the script, drawing from the real-life characters who played in the Negro Leagues. “There’s so many interesting stories, literally thousands,” he said.

“The happy thing that happened during this project was that Buck O’Neil himself got totally involved in what we were doing,” said Mackey. “He told the director, ‘You got it right,’ which was good to hear,” though O’Neil did point out that they’d misnamed a street. 

“He came almost every day,” Mackey said. “He was a great inspiration.” 

For his tunes, Cox drew on the vibrant cultural influence of the music that spilled out into streets of the 18th and Vine district during that era.

For the music, Mackey immediately thought of blues legend Danny Cox, a frequent collaborator who is now a TYA resident artist. Cox’s involvement with the Negro Leagues began decades ago, during his childhood. 

“My father played for a Negro League team called the Atlanta Black Crackers,” said Cox. “My father would tell these great stories that had come down in time, about Buck O’Neil, about Josh Gibson . . . These men were literally like gods in my house.” 

“Being a young Black kid and not having any heroes in the history books, you had to have folklore, in a sense, to know where you came from,” he said. “When Gene came to me, it was right up my alley.”

Cox wrote an album’s worth of new material and performed in every show. 

Founded in Kansas City as the Negro National League, the Negro Leagues celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2020, though many events were cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The 101st anniversary is just as good,” laughed Cox. 

Photos of the 2004 original production, then titled “Monarchs,” including a shot of the performance and a picture of Buck O’Neill visiting with cast and audience members

He was inspired to write some more songs for the current production, featuring John Wesley Donaldson (who struck out over 5,000 players) and Toni Stone (the first woman to play big-league baseball). He had also written a song for O’Neil’s memorial, which Cox recently performed for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production “Baseball: A Musical Love Letter.” 

For his tunes, Cox drew on the vibrant cultural influence of the music that spilled out into streets of the 18th and Vine district during that era. 

“It’s a special condition of the 18th and Vine neighborhood, the whole community there, in spite of racism and all the problems, it was an enormously celebratory community,” said Mackey. “The musicians and the baseball players kind of co-mingled, according to Buck, who lived there at the time. They were part of the same community.” 

In those days, the baseball field, Municipal Stadium, was right in the city, something that Cox remembers from his childhood in Cincinnati. “Baseball was part of our lives,” he said. “You could stand out on the side of the wall in the street and catch the home run ball.” 

Now, as in 2004, they want to bring back some of that magic in “Fair Ball,” honoring those heroes of yesteryear while acknowledging the hardships they endured. One hundred years later, their contributions to the sport are getting their due, in music and otherwise. 

In Kansas City, the Monarchs’ legacy lives on in the recent name change for the region’s AAA team. And nationally, the statistics from the Negro Leagues are being integrated with Major League Baseball. “What that is showing is that the Negro League has as good, and in many cases better, statistics, and some of the old records will be broken,” said Mackey. 

“Baseball is such a comforting thing, with the same rules for everybody,” he said. “We’re celebrating that ‘good-rule-ness’ of baseball as part of the blow against racism at the time.”

Theatre for Young America presents “Fair Ball: Negro Leagues in America” Sept. 28 through Oct. 9 at Union Station City Stage. For more information visit tya.org.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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