Last of three parts
Mason Clark can’t help but think back to the good old days when baseball was the sport of choice among black youngsters who lived in the District.
“When we first got started here,” he said, “there were always plenty of kids who wanted to play — all over the city.”
Mr. Clark, 72, a retired public school teacher, moved here in 1959 and shortly thereafter helped found the Woodridge Warriors, an organization based in Northeast that provides educational guidance and athletic opportunities for young people. He is now the executive director. The Warriors are still going strong, but it bothers Mr. Clark that black children here over the years have skipped baseball for other sports, reflecting a national trend.
“Every [recreation] center had a good baseball team,” he said. “You never heard of a team not being able to play because it didn’t have enough kids.”
Others also lament the declining involvement.
“When I was a child, there was a whole lot of interest,” said Ronald Hines, a D.C. firefighter and the new head baseball coach at Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest. Mr. Hines, who grew up in that part of the city and coaches two youth league teams there, added: “These days, it’s probably declined about 40 percent.”
Although the Woodridge Warriors field nine teams, from T-ball to the 16-18 age bracket — all composed mainly of blacks — Mr. Clark said the numbers still are down from a generation ago. He blames several factors, including deteriorating fields because of city budget cuts, and something less visible — the deterioration of the family unit.
“Too many people are not willing to make a long-term commitment,” he said. “Baseball is a disciplined sport, but too many African-American families don’t enforce discipline with kids at a young age. It’s not a black problem; it has more to do with economics, but it has a greater effect on blacks than it does on others. It’s a family issue.”
Antoine Williams, athletic director and baseball coach at the private Maret School in Northwest and founder of D.C. Dynasty, which sponsors four predominantly black teams, agrees.
“Baseball is a family game, and a lot of times in the inner city, you don’t have that father-son relationship that you would like,” he said. “It’s not like basketball or football, where you go out and play with your friends. Baseball is a little different.”
Said Michael Williams, who worked for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for 18 years and now serves as director of Play Ball DC, an umbrella organization for youth baseball leagues that works with the department and helps coordinate and solve problems with field maintenance and assignments: “A lot of it has to do with parental involvement, with single-parent moms raising boys.”
He also cites “program deficiencies.”
“It’s an expensive sport,” said Mr. Williams, who is not related to Antoine Williams. “Baseball is not what it used to be when I was playing, when you could find a rubber ball, a bat and a wall. Now you’ve got to go to baseball camps and academies, get a metal bat and a glove, and be on the right teams.”
Mr. Williams, 58, is a baseball dad. His son Jared Williams starred at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., and now plays for the Charlotte County (Fla.) Redfish of the independent South Coast League. Like other fathers, Mr. Williams paid for camps, clinics and team fees, and he did a lot of driving.
He noted that three other black players from the D.C. area who earned NCAA Division I baseball scholarships — Emmanuel “Manny” Burris of Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, Marcus Jones of Landon School and Gerard Hall Jr. of Gonzaga College High School — all had something in common with his son.
“It’s not an accident,” he said. “All four came from two-parent households, and all their dads were baseball people.”
Said Mr. Clark: “Almost every kid that made it in baseball had a strong family structure that supported him. Unfortunately, so many African-Americans have not had that.”
Mr. Williams is encouraged that since the Washington Nationals arrived in 2005, participation among younger black children has increased.
“The years before they arrived, it was just frustrating,” he said. “The numbers were low. We were losing kids at age 12. We continued to lose kids to other sports — basketball and football.”
But getting children to keep playing remains a problem. Calvin Forrest played three sports at Cardozo Senior High School in the District, but his first love is baseball. He is black, and so are many of his friends. For the most part, his friends do not love baseball or even like it very much.
“They think it’s, like, a white sport,” said Calvin, who will attend the University of the South, known as Sewanee, in Tennessee on an academic scholarship this fall.
Given the increasing number of Hispanics and Asians playing in the major leagues, that is not entirely accurate. But it is the perception among many black American youngsters, and the reality is that baseball increasingly is becoming a non-black sport. Only 8.4 percent of all major leaguers last year were black Americans, the smallest number since the peak of 27 percent in the mid-1970s, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Central Florida Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sport.
Calvin, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 260 pounds, was a football lineman, a basketball center and a first baseman on the Cardozo baseball team. He prefers baseball “because I like to hit the ball,” he said. “There are so many ranges of options of what you can do. Every time you come to the plate, you can do something different.”
But Calvin knows his thoughtful, somewhat cerebral approach to the game differs drastically from that of his peers.
“Every time I ask somebody about playing baseball, they say something like, ‘I can’t catch,’ or ‘I can’t hit,’ ” he said. “But all that batting is is hand-eye coordination. If you can catch a football, you can hit a baseball.”
Most young, black athletes like Calvin don’t see it that way. Football and especially basketball have evolved as the sports of choice, not just here but everywhere. Call it the Michael Jordan effect.
“A lot of kids think baseball is boring,” said McKinley Technology High School coach Cornell Simms, who coaches the Woodridge Warriors’ 16-18 team.
Said Cardozo coach Frazier O’Leary, whose team is predominantly black: “Baseball is not the first choice among African-American players. If I asked my players to name five major league players, most couldn’t do it.”
O’Leary, who has been coaching baseball for 30 years and is in his third stint at Cardozo, attributes that to the absence of Major League Baseball in the District for 34 years, until the Montreal Expos moved here and became the Nationals.
“Our kids had never seen a professional baseball game before,” he said.
Now that pro baseball is here, the Nationals, as well as the rest of Major League Baseball, are making a concerted effort to reach out to inner-city children at the grass-roots level and expose them to the game through various programs and the construction of baseball academies. Play Ball DC’s Mr. Williams estimated that the Nationals have donated 40,000-50,000 tickets to youth teams over the past three years. But it will take a monumental effort to reverse a long-continuing trend — if it can be reversed.
“We encourage the kids to come out, but I used to have 50, 60 kids try out, and now I’m lucky if I have 20 or 25,” said Keith Spinner, who recently retired after 27 years as baseball coach at Jefferson Junior High School. “There have been times I felt like I haven’t been able to field a team. … Not only has the number of kids trying out decreased, but also their skill level. I’m teaching kids how to throw and catch who [used to come] to me already prepared.
“Most of the kids have taken up basketball,” he said. “They can play basketball year-round. When I was growing up, we played basketball in basketball season, baseball in baseball season, football during football season. All those kids over there, most of them play football and basketball.”
Spinner was pointing to an assemblage of Jefferson students gathered in the gym in late March for a presentation by officials from the Nationals. As a means of promoting baseball awareness in the inner city, a practice of most big league clubs, the team was announcing a “partnership” with D.C. Public Schools and inviting Jefferson students to an exhibition game at RFK Stadium before the regular-season opener.
Spinner, 47, wearing a white Nationals jersey with his name on the back, was happy the club was making such an effort. But he lamented how interest in baseball among children has waned since he was a youngster growing up in the District. He also cites the long absence of Major League Baseball in D.C. as a primary cause.
“It really destroyed baseball here,” he said. “I can remember as a kid Dollar Day, Bat Day, Ball Day, sneaking down from the nosebleed seats [at RFK Stadium]. These kids haven’t had that type of situation.”
Spinner introduced two of his players from this year’s team, Jeremy Underwood, a ninth-grader, and Joey Williams, an eighth-grader. Both play multiple sports. Asked which is his favorite, Jeremy instantly replied, “Basketball.”
“It’s a lot easier, I think, than baseball,” he said. “It’s more intense. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Joey agreed that his friends find baseball much more challenging and that it is more difficult to hit a curveball than a jump shot.
“They’ve played baseball before, and they probably think it’s too hard,” he said. “They probably make excuses.”
Joey, like Calvin Forrest, is an anomaly. He loves baseball, partly because his brother, Jared Williams, plays professionally. This fall, Joey will enroll at Wilson High and play for the D.C. Public League’s most dominant program. Under coach Eddie Saah, the school has won 110 straight league games and 15 straight league championships.
Saah’s teams are mostly white. He said of 16 players on this year’s roster, three were black. He noted that Wilson’s black enrollment is 55 percent. Wilson is one of the few predominantly white teams in the league, yet Saah said he continues to try to recruit black ninth- and 10th-graders.
“I approach all the quarterbacks,” he said. “I tell them I’d be helping with their throwing motion. But they don’t come out. They put all their marbles into one sport.”
According to O’Leary, public high school teams have only four regulation fields, operated by the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department, on which to play. The best by far is Banneker Field in Northwest across Seventh Street from Howard University. City teams are notoriously underfunded, relying on private donations and recently a grant from the Cal Ripken Fund to purchase balls, bats and uniforms.
Allen Chin, head of the DC Interscholastic Athletic Association, said he would love it if baseball teams had more money, but sports in the city suffer from a lack of funds in general.
When O’Leary first started coaching and more African-Americans were playing, “the teams were much better,” he said. “The teams had baseball players. Now, I have to start off teaching them baseball. It’s like the old Casey Stengel story: ‘This is a baseball.’ I have to teach them how to hold a baseball to throw it. … It’s a real problem to get kids to play baseball. I’ve had a lot of good athletes, superstars in football and basketball, who refused to play.”
Part 1: Baseball lacks Black Americans
Part 2: MLB makes pitch to recruit Blacks