Thursday marked the latest chapter in that connection, as the museum partnered with Rawlings to posthumously award nine Negro Leagues players with Gold Glove Awards. Baseball legends Ozzie Smith and Frank White were on hand to help unveil the recipients of the awards, along with museum president Bob Kendrick.
The winners of the awards were first baseman Walter "Buck" Leonard, second baseman Newt Allen, shortstop Willie Wells, third baseman Ray Dandridge, outfielder James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell, outfielder Martin Dihigo, outfielder Oscar Charleston, catcher Raleigh "Biz" Mackey and pitcher Leon Day.
Former Negro Leagues player and manager -- and Kansas City legend -- Buck O'Neil was also presented with an honorary Gold Glove.
"These nine former players that are accepting these up there somewhere, this is not just about having a good year," said Rawlings Vice President Mike Thompson. "It's not having a couple good years. It's about having a lifetime of greatness. These are bestowed upon these players by position, so we're talking about the best defensive player at first base, the best all-time defensive second baseman, the best all-time defensive shortstop and so on. You talk about careers, these are careers."
The awards will be on permanent display at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
The winners of the awards were selected by a six-member panel, which consisted of Kendrick, baseball historian Phil Dixon, Negro Leagues legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, USA Today writer Joe Posnanski, Negro Leagues researcher Dr. Layton Revel and baseball historian James Riley.
Dixon said the process involved each panelist submitting five players at each position, and then voting when each position was narrowed down to three names. He described the process as "impossible."
"You're talking about over 100 years of baseball," Dixon said. "I had the great pleasure of knowing seven of these gentlemen [that won the awards]. I could have probably put three deep at every position. But they didn't all come out of the same era. Picking one guy out of a hundred years of history is a pretty tough process, but I can guarantee you that the guys they got today are definitely Gold Glovers."
Between the Gold Gloves being awarded and the 21 combined Gold Gloves owned by presenters Smith and White, there was some slick defense on display at the museum.
"One of the greatest honors that I had bestowed upon me," Smith said, "was to have a Negro Leagues player come up to me and say, 'You could've played with us.' It doesn't get any better than that."
"We always talk about the prolific hitting of the Negro Leagues and their players, and this is the first time that anybody ever talked about the actual defense of these players," White said. "Anytime you can take the prolific offense and defense and put it together in one guy, you've got a great player. I think today we have nine great players, and giving the honorary Gold Glove to Buck O'Neil made it 10 great players that we presented Gold Gloves to today."
White told a story of his experience attending a Negro Leagues game in Kansas City, where he grew up, and he likened the performances he saw to the baseball equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.
"I just vividly remember the game that my dad took me to, with the Kansas City Giants and the Indianapolis Clowns," White said. "I thought it was the funniest game I'd seen, yet they didn't make mistakes.
"They weren't only great athletes, but they were also great baseball players. It was kind of like watching the Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. The baseball players were that good."
Kendrick's descriptions of the recipients illustrated how different the Negro Leagues game was. Gold Glove Award winner Dihigo, for example, played all nine positions, and was a finalist both in the outfield and at pitcher. Day, who was the recipient for the pitcher's spot, played eight positions.
Many of the winners were described as "the greatest of all-time," and third baseman Ray Dandridge was described as "the greatest third baseman to never play in the Major Leagues." Kendrick said that O'Neil called shortstop Willie Wells "Ozzie Smith before we knew who Ozzie Smith was."
Though none of the recipients are currently alive, all but one have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"Having known many of those individuals -- I wish they would've been here to see it -- but, having spent some time with them and knowing their personality, I know that they would've enjoyed this a lot, probably more than I can say," Dixon said.
Vinnie Duber is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.