My Two Gregs
by Jack Cashill
Two of my favorite people in the world are named “Greg.” Last month, a week before each of their stories made the front page of The Kansas City Star, I had proposed to introduce the one Greg to the other.
As fate would have it, they both found themselves working in the same industry, one for 20 years, the other for just a few weeks. I knew there was much the one could learn from the other.
Alas, the meeting will never come to be, at least on this side of the great divide. On the night of Jan. 12, an 18-year-old scum-bucket rammed his BMW into the back of Greg Hawley’s pick-up truck and killed him. The kid’s unpardonably reckless maneuver put this Greg on the front page.
“Greg, you were an inspiration to me and so many people. You lived your dreams. You challenged others to do the same,” wrote the fellow who found Greg after the accident. “Thank you for what your life has meant to so many.To me, it was an honor to be there with you in your final moments.” I could not have said it better.
Greg Baker made the front-page a few days later. Although his story is not tragic like Hawley’s, the fact that he made the front page speaks to the unamusing tragi-comedy into which Kansas City politics too often descends.
The industry that Baker and Hawley had in common, at least for a few weeks, was the museum business. As is well enough known, Greg Hawley, along with his father, Bob, his brother, David, and friend Jerry Mackey, did the seemingly undoable.
The foursome located a MissouriRiver steamboat buried deep under a Kansas farm field, built an elaborate de-watering system to help them retrieve the boat, exhumed 200 tons of frontier merchandise, and promptly taught themselves how to preserve it, restore it and display it in what is one of the best loved museums in America, a veritable 1856 Wal-Mart, the Steamboat Arabia Museum.
In December, Greg Baker was named to head the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 18th and Vine. If the museum he was inheriting was not the worst in Kansas City, it was the most disappointing. It was the one where the gap between what might be and what is yawns the widest.
When I heard that Baker had gotten the job, my immediate reaction was,“Of course!” This, I thought, was the perfect job for Baker and the best possible pick for the museum.
I had known Baker for some 30 years back to when we were both twenty-something grunts toiling in the seventh circle of public administration hell, the Housing Authority of Kansas City.
At the time Baker and I started working there, the Authority was the Lombard Street of public agencies, negotiable, but crooked from top to bottom. Baker passed through there not just uncorrupted, but un-tempted. He was the staightest guy I have met in public life.
Upstanding on the job, Baker was outstanding on the ball field. I have never played with anyone who played so well—hitting, running and especially throwing. He should have been in the majors. He should have been a star in the majors. What stopped him was what has stopped a lot of young black kids in the inner city, a lack of consistent structure and support.
Baker was one of about nine or so children and, as such, he got much of his education in the Kansas City streets. As those streets got weirder, they sucked in two of his brothers, who would spend considerable and well-deserved time in the hoose-gow. A combination of a Catholic education and the U.S. Air Force helped keep Baker on the visitor’s side of the glass.
If this were not resume and street “cred” enough, Baker is creative, congenial and all around talented. A few years back, he and I collaborated with Denny Osburn on the score for a documentary I produced for KCPT that won an Emmy for music. The documentary was called “The Royals Years,” as in the baseball “Royals.” Did I mention that Baker has a deep affection for and knowledge of the game?
Knowing this about Baker, I was flabbergasted to see the trashing he took when named to head the museum. In the usually readable sports pages of The Kansas City Star,Jason Whitlock sprang out of his corner looking for a quick TKO.
“Choice is a slap in the face to Buck,”read the neck-snapping headline of that initial column, and it got more brutal from there. Whitlock called the decision to hire Baker “bizarre, irresponsible and border-line unethical.” And this jab was gentler than the final one in which he compared Baker to Rod Blagojevich–unfavorably.
According to Whitlock—a Hoosier himself, Straight Outta Muncie—Baker lacked “credibility” in the community. The slam could not have been more damning—or different—if I had been named to head to museum. “An up-to-date Hood Pass is a requirement for leading the museum,” added Whitlock, presumably without irony. “It’s not a job for Clarence Thomas.”
I can assure Mr. Whitlock that Baker and Thomas sported different yard signs this presidential season. Besides, if being a Republican prohibits a “Clarence Thomas” from running the museum, then it should prevent the most famous of Kansas City Monarchs from being in it. Jackie Robinson was a Republican, too.
For Baker, reading The Kansas City Star each successive January morning had to call to mind Dorothy Parker’s memorable line, “What fresh hell is this?” Whitlock’s fellow sportswriter Joe Posnanski weighed in next and just as heavily (figuratively anyhow).
“I don’t even know the man,” Posnanski conceded about Baker, “but I believe [his selection] is a grave injustice, and I believe it’s a slap at Buck O’Neil.” Along time supporter of the museum, Posnanski concluded, “I intend to never set foot in there again.” Yikes! One can only imagine his reaction if he actually disliked Baker.
When the story did reach the front page of The Star, Baker was relieved. The reporter at least had talked to him and gave him a reasonably fair shake. The critics, however, showed more interest in spiting Baker than they did in solving the problems that have bedeviled the museum, if, that is, they knew what the problems were.
I do. Bottom line: Greg Hawley and his family and friends spent less money to locate, dig, retrieve the Arabia, restore the artifacts and open the museum than the Cityof Kansas City spent on cost overruns for the 18th and Vine projects.
To visit the two museums is to understand in a heartbeat the difference between entrepreneurship and public ownership. For all his virtues, the late Buck O’Neil had to wade through the same swampy politics that threaten to bog down Baker.
As I know from personal experience, Baker has an entrepreneurial heart. As a first step, he might volunteer to take Posnanski and Whitlock down to the Steamboat Arabia Museum and show them how a museum can work when it isinspired not only by the love of the subject, but also by the logic of free enterprise.
For that matter, Baker might want to bring The Star front office as well.
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