BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - In the city where baseball legends Satchel Paige and Willie Mays played on a segregated team, plans for a new Negro League Baseball Museum were unveiled Friday.
Several former players for the famous “Birmingham Black Barons” turned out for the occasion anxious to honor their old teams and teammates.
The interactive museum will feature holograms that allow visitors to stand in the line of fire as Paige pitches one of his legendary fastballs.
Visitors will also be able to meet former players volunteering at the museum who will be free to “tell all the lies they want,” joked Layton Revel, founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research (CNLBR) in Dallas.
“It will be a museum like no other one in the country,” said Revel, who will be donating most of the memorabilia that will fill the 5,000 square foot museum, including 1,500 baseballs.
His massive collection was once displayed in a now-closed museum in Dallas and could cover 30,000 square feet, he said.
Negro League teams were professional baseball teams made up of African-American players excluded from the all-white major leagues during segregation.
They began informally in the late 1800s and operated professionally from 1920 to 1960, drawing large crowds around the country. Some of Major League Baseball’s most talented players emerged from these leagues, including Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the modern era to be signed by a major league team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1945.
The new museum plans to work in unison with the Kansas City, Missouri-based Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which was founded in 1990, Birmingham Mayor William Bell announced at a press conference.
“We look forward to cooperating in spreading the word of the history of the Negro leagues and its relevancy,” concurred Bob Kendrick, president of the Missouri museum. “Birmingham has a rich black baseball history and great players whose careers began there.”
The Birmingham museum will focus on the segregated Southern League and the Industrial League as well as the integration of baseball, to complement Birmingham’s civil rights past.
“I played for the Raleigh Tigers for one year, before the St. Louis Cardinals signed me in 1963. I was one of the first black players after integration, and I was only 17 years old,” said Ernest “Big Dog” Fann, now 70 years old, who’s story will be featured in the new facility.
The Birmingham City Council in May approved $400,000 in funds for the $2 million construction project adjoining Birmingham’s new downtown baseball field.
The rest of the funding will be raised privately, according to Chuck Faush, Jr. a spokesman for the mayor.
Construction is slated to start in October for a December 2014 opening.
Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer