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Ollie Gates: Barbecue, Negro Leagues communities were intertwined

Posted at 1:29 PM, Feb 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-18 16:37:44-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas Citians may have heard about the impact the Monarchs had on the city, or maybe even read about it — but Ollie Gates lived it.

The current owner of Gates Bar-B-Q was raised near East 19th Street and Vine Street in Kansas City, Missouri.

He gave 41 Action News a firsthand account of his interactions with several players and members of the Kansas City Monarchs organization, which was one of the best teams in the Negro Leagues.

Ollie was a teenager working the counter at Gates Bar-B-Q in the 1940s. At that time, it was known as Old Kentuck BBQ.

“You see those guys with the big cars and tall hats, and the good-looking women," Gates said. "There was something for you to look forward to. The only joints that stayed open after hours where all the baseball players coming in was barbecue joints.”

The men made their presence known, too — both on and off the baseball diamond, Gates said.

“I’ll tell you, you’ve got to understand the egos a lot of those guys had," he said. "They was somebody, and they knew it. And everybody loved them, and they thought everybody loved them."

Gates’ first encounter with a few of the Monarchs wasn’t exactly what he’d call the “Royal Treatment.”

"Buck (O’Neil) and Satchel (Paige) and a couple of the other guys came to the joint," Gates said. "Everybody was pretty happy and feeling good, and so everybody was kissing and hugging somebody. But Buck came into the joint and Buck thought he was cute. You’ve got to understand Buck had a little streak in him. He thought he was cuter than everybody else. He’s a good-looking guy, but my dad didn’t think he was too cute, you know what I mean?

"So, Buck came in, mama was there in the restaurant that night, and he came in loud per usual with Satchel Paige. And Buck grabbed my mother, gave her a big hug and said 'Hey, over there, sweetheart,' one night. And my dad said, 'Hey, hey, hey, hey friend. Just a second, my friend. Back up. Don’t hug my wife like that.'"

Gates’ relationship with the legendary Buck O’Neil was contentious at best while Gates was in his teens and early 20s, but they later became the best of friends over the years.

"I had a beef with Buck, because my dad had a beef with Buck, you know what I mean?” he said.

O'Neil was just one of the several Monarchs to come through the doors, and they all left their impression on Gates as a young man, he said.

“A guy named Willard Brown, Big Lazy, he was a center fielder," Gates said. "Frank Duncan, he was a great catcher. But the best catcher of all of them was Mickey Taborn. Taborn was the first guy I’d ever seen that could catch the ball and if the man got a single, he’d run behind the first baseman and back him up before the man even got the ball. He was fast, Mickey Taborn was."

Another one of Gates' favorite players was Jessie Williams.

He played second base until a guy named Jackie Robinson came to the Kansas City Monarchs. Williams moved to shortstop to make room for the future Brooklyn Dodger and trailblazer, who went on to break Major League Baseball's color barrier.

“He had a great personality,” Gates said. “The one that didn’t have a personality was probably one of the best third basemen you want to see was Hank Thompson. Newt Joseph was a catcher for the Monarchs. He was second string, but he owned Monarch Cab, and Monarch Cab Company was the number one cab company in Kansas City in the black community. And of course, Hilton Smith. He backed up Satchel Paige. He lived at 26th and Park, so he was like a neighbor, too."

Gates said the accessibility of those players helped everyone realize their dreams were within reach.

“You looked at those guys as somebody in the neighborhood,” Gates said. “Like you looked up to a school teacher, you might look up to a preacher, and you looked up to them as a baseball player. That was their profession. We had legends and didn’t even know we had legends and they were right amongst you. So, I think black kids should look at history, just like anybody else does and be proud of who you are. And those guys really made you proud. It’s up to us living, rather than those who died, to make sure things are carried on.”

41 Action News is celebrating the Negro Leagues centennial in collaboration with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Click here to see more #NLB100 stories.