Spottswood Poles. Who knew?
Many sports fans know Kansas City will host this year's baseball All-Star Game, with the festivities for the July 10 contest beginning some days before.
And most know that "other" Missouri city has a rich tradition of barbecue, blues and be-bop.
But had I never gone to Kansas City, I never would have heard of Spottswood "Spots" Poles — a man whose remarkable history abides in two of the most moving, informative museums I have ever visited.
But more about that as we go.
Kansas City planners already have begun a full-court press (pardon the mixing of sports metaphors) to make their city sparkle and shine with events leading up to the game, which has in recent years simply become the culmination of a series of special events that rival the game itself in popularity.
For example, the Home Run Derby (July 9) may be the most popular event in the bunch. Last year's contest sparked a social media avalanche on Facebook and Twitter, with players chatting with fans during the derby.
In Kansas City, the hoopla kicks off (sorry, another metaphor mix) July 6 with FanFest, held at the city's convention center, Bartle Hall. It will feature batting cages, clinics, memorabilia displays and autograph sessions with former Royals and Hall of Famers. Other events are planned in the days leading to the game. For a schedule, go to mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/all_star/y2012.
Truth be told, if you don't already have a ticket to the game or the Home Run Derby, you're not going to get one now — unless you play on StubHub or other online tickets services, or you happen to know a guy who knows a guy.
That doesn't mean you should cross Kansas City off the list of places to go. The city has a long, storied baseball history and more than its fair share of interesting, tasty places to visit. To that end, here is a list of spots that offer the best of the two basic vacation pursuits: Going places and eating things.
And because we're talking about baseball, let's call it:
THE KANSAS CITY NINE
1. Every team needs a leadoff hitter, and I suggest it be Gates Barbecue. With more than 65 years in the business, it is a Kansas City institution — and the best way to introduce yourself to the city. To native Kansas Citians, life boils down to the crucial question of "Gates vs. Arthur Bryant's." I've eaten both more than once, and I prefer Gates. And with six locations in Kansas City, it's always easy to find. Keep in mind this is old-school 'cue, cooked over direct wood flames in an open pit — just like we all grew up eating in our backyards. They have a full array of entrees, but the ribs and the beef sausage are my faves. Set aside $8 to $20 a person. Many locations; gatesbbq.com
2. Sticking with the "eating things" category, fried chicken lovers will want to check out one restaurant when in KC. Now you could go to the famous Stroud's, but then you might miss the superior Niecie's Restaurant, which serves the best yardbird in town. The skin is crispy with the slightest hint of spice and wonderfully lacking any hint of greasiness. The meat was juicy, even the breast, and served piping hot. Don't forget to ask for a side of milk gravy, and the greens are as good as that dish can get — especially if you scoop them on top of a corn bread biscuit. A chicken dinner with two sides and a massive slab of peach cobbler for dessert and an iced tea cost me about $12. I'd pay that again tomorrow if they delivered to St. Louis. Two locations; nieciesrestaurant.com.
3. For the foodie, an excellent choice is Michael Smith, the namesake restaurant of the James Beard award-winning chef considered by many to be Kansas City's top culinary creative force. The restaurant occupies a corner of the Crossroads Arts District and is next door to Smith's tapas bar, Extra Virgin. The cuisine is new American, with a substantial foundation of Southern European cuisine. The "eight-hour roast pork" had a crispy skin and succulent meat and was served atop the finest risotto I've ever eaten. Sampler-course orders allow diners to test out appetizers, entrees and a dessert. Expect to spend at least $50 a person, not counting alcohol. It is expensive; it is excellent. 1900 Main Street; 1-816-842-2202; michaelsmithkc.com.
4. No other city other than Memphis can even attempt to argue a greater barbecue heritage. So if the lead-off hitter for a KC trip is a barbecue joint, then so should be the closer. And that simply has to be Oklahoma Joe's, whose original site is located in a working gas station just over the line in Kansas. This barbecue joint, which uses the "low-and-slow" smoking method, has become quite famous in recent years through food-channel shows. But this cowboy has both the hat and the cattle and backs its reputation as one of the best in the U.S. The ever-present lines best attest to this stature. (Go between 2 and 4 p.m. to avoid long lines, though they do move fast.) The ribs are fantastic, and the brisket is only millimeters behind. Figure $15-$20 a person. Three locations; oklahomajoesbbq.com
Now let's switch to "going places" — and Poles.
5. For years, I said true baseball fans must go to the National Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to celebrate the world's greatest sport and our national pastime. That "must-do" list just doubled.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is not only a fine collection of artifacts, displays and information, but also a compelling tribute to those who truly played "for the love of the game," since society at the time prevented them from doing it in the all-white major leagues.
Designers deserve praise for the museum's layout, which requires visitors to walk around the outside and learn about the leagues before they can step on the field and stand among statues of the leagues' greatest players. It's a powerful, symbolic reminder of sacrifice, perseverance and dedication.
By the way, Poles was a center fielder for several teams from 1909 to 1923 and was referred to as the "black Ty Cobb." Legendary New York manager John McGraw said Poles was one of four black players he had wanted to draft but couldn't because of the color barrier. Poles' photo is included with a team photograph of the 1911 Lincoln Giants, and he is mentioned along with other Negro Leaguers in a section of the museum noting players who served in World War I.
"This is not just a precious piece of baseball history," said museum executive director Bob Kendrick, "but also a precious piece of American history." 1616 East 18th Street; $3-$8; 1-816-221-1920; nlbm.com.
6. For the die-hard baseball fan, try to get to Forest Hill Cemetery and visit the Leroy "Satchel" Paige grave. Considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time, the ageless Paige spent much of his illustrious career with the Kansas City Monarchs, arguably the most popular of all Negro Leagues teams. Best of all, the tombstone features Paige's rules for staying young and healthy, which include the now-famous line: "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you." Free; 6901 Troost Avenue.
7. Stepping away from baseball, I discovered another beautiful, inspiring place: The National World War I Museum. While this may be a forgotten war in the popular-culture sense, it is a required stop the next time you visit Kansas City. With incredibly informative displays, the violence of these conflicts and their lasting impact on modern society are brought home in a concise, circular layout that can be enjoyed in about two hours. But give it three.
Pay attention as you enter the main museum area from the lobby. You will walk across a glass floor suspended above a field of poppies — a sublime reference to the poem "In Flanders Fields," written by Canadian officer John McCrae. The last line: "We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields."
By the way, Poles was awarded the Purple Heart and five battle stars for his service in World War I with the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters." His picture is here as part of the Allied All-Stars display, which highlights U.S. soldiers who competed in a series of sports competitions in France after the war ended. 100 West 26th Street; $8-$14; 1-816-888-8102; theworldwar.org.
8. All ballclubs need a utility player, and Kansas City has one with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which has something to offer most ages and interests. The lawn is used by locals for picnics, while the inside offers a noted display of Asian art, a solid collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and a 22-acre sculpture garden.
From now through Aug. 19, the museum is hosting a special display, "Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs." Offering art objects that were first introduced at the 19th and 20th century expositions — including the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis — the display is a lively and eye-catching look at items that wowed the masses in their time. (Admission to the museum is free, but there is a charge for this exhibit.)
"World's Fairs indeed brought the world together," said museum director Julián Zugazagoitia. "It is seeing a world of innovation and transformation, these moments of ingenuity and creativity." 45th and Oak streets; 1-816-751-1278; nelson-atkins.org.
With all that going and eating, it helps to "drink some."
9. Boulevard Brewing Co. is headquartered in Kansas City. It is the 10th-largest craft brewery in the U.S. and the largest Missouri-owned brewery. They offer free tours (but you need reservations) that end with samples of their regular line, as well as the designer Smokestack series and unreleased test beers.
I sampled their newest brew, "80 Acre Hoppy Wheat." Set to be released Aug. 1, it was delicious and should please both hopheads and wheat-beer fans. If it's not in St. Louis by Aug. 2, they can expect a phone call. 2501 Southwest Boulevard; 1-816-474-7095; boulevard.com.