Reviving Jackie Robinson

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Richmond, Va.—Flush with a $50,000 grant from Major League Baseball, former big-leaguer John Young set out to build his field of dreams: inner city ballfields crammed with African-American youth, drawn off the streets by the game that Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron and the "Say Hey Kid" glorified.

Then came the first tryout one spring day in a South Central Los Angeles park - 11 kids showed up.

That was 1989. This spring, 110,000 boys and girls take the fields in 130 cities and towns and seven foreign countries for the program launched by the catcher-turned-youth worker. And in a seemingly odd pinch-hitting assignment, this strategy to boost baseball - Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) - is no longer managed by baseball, but by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Where baseball sees 110,000 future fans and perhaps a few players on the RBI fields - and ultimately, better business - the Boys & Girls Clubs (BAGCA) sees 110,000 youth development opportunities. Thus baseball's money and BAGCA's acumen with youth come together to answer the question: Can a youth development program revive baseball among black urban youth?

The answer is yes in Kansas City, where 700 youths stock 48 teams in the town that was home to Satchel Paige and the great Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League. But the effort does not play well in Peoria, where the program can't even draw 60 kids, and a Boys & Girls Club staffer laments, "It keeps getting smaller."

The challenge many of these programs face is still the same one Young encountered: Baseball has run on lean times among black youngsters, whose attention has increasingly focused on basketball. These days, the disintegrating interest in baseball has spread to black communities across America's heartland.

Empty Fields

As a scout for the Texas Rangers, Young saw the trend coming in the late 1980s: Youngsters in the black neighborhoods of big cities were no longer playing baseball. Young, who is African American, was particularly perplexed by what he saw in South Central, where he grew up. Baseball was not being played in the very neighborhoods that produced Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis and other big league stars.

"When scouts got together," Young recalled, "one of the main topics was, how can we get more kids in the inner city to play baseball?"

At the same time, Major League Baseball (MLB) officials heard rumblings about baseball's diversity problem. Black fans were notably scarce in big league ballparks - less than 1 percent at Boston's Fenway Park, according to a Boston Globe survey - and the number of African-American players on the field was declining.

Young's proposal for RBI came at just the right time to interest Major League officials, who were eager to revive black interest in the game.

Young initially theorized that the decline of baseball in black neighborhoods was due in part to the absence of programs for youngsters beyond the 9-to-12 age group that are the prime focus for Little League. Young planned a league for players 13 and up, which is also a time of increasing risk for youth gang and drug involvement.

But why did only 11 kids show up that first day?

Young found that the park where he held his tryout was a known gang hangout; many kids were afraid to show up. So Young introduced himself to gang members, told them what he was doing, and got them to keep a distance from the games. He eventually fielded an RBI league with 180 players that year.

Still, there was more to the problem of reviving baseball than dealing with gangs. A shift had occurred in the youth culture of black neighborhoods, where the exploits of Jackie Robinson were now ancient history. Basketball, with its flashy marketing of high-flying stars, had become the year-round game.

Some baseball loyalists believed that cash-strapped public recreation programs were accelerating the trend, because putting up hoops was easier and cheaper than maintaining good baseball diamonds. Baseball is also a game that requires careful coaching and patience; position by position, its skills take years to master. Many programs lacked the time and staffing to do this properly.

"It was so easy for parks and recreation departments to roll out a basketball - it's so easy to steer youngsters in that direction," said William Forrester, executive director of the Metropolitan Junior Baseball League in Richmond, Va. The league has struggled for 35 years to keep baseball alive in Richmond's black neighborhoods.

Across America, youth baseball participation in the early 1990s was up - everywhere except in black neighborhoods.

Now Batting

For Baseball...

Young also believed that baseball would not compete for youngster's hearts if his leagues had rock-strewn fields and ragtag uniforms. So with the funding from MLB, his RBI teams had sharp uniforms, a good field to play on, and help from big leaguers who held clinics for the kids.

In its second year, RBI expanded to three parks and 500 kids in Los Angeles, while launching programs with MLB grants in St. Louis (at the Mathews-Dickey Boys Club) and in New York City's Harlem.

In 1991, Major League Baseball assumed administration of the growing RBI program, recruiting more Major League teams to act as local sponsors. By 1993 RBI was in 14 cities; by 1997, it was in 71 cities - well beyond the 28 cities with Major League teams. There was an annual playoff and "World Series" that has become a fixture each August at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex outside Orlando, Fla.

The program's growth, however, was outstripping MLB's ability to handle it. It was becoming a huge youth development program run by a sports business.

So in 1997, with frustrating administrative demands growing, MLB signed a five-year management agreement for BAGCA to run RBI. "Baseball was looking for a more focused charity activity, like the NFL has with United Way," said Timothy L. Richardson, BAGCA's senior director of sports, fitness and recreation. "It was a good marriage. We also had the infrastructure to make RBI grow."

Under the partnership, the Boys & Girls Clubs linked a version of its SMART Moves program to new RBI ventures. SMART Moves (Skills Mastery and Resistance Training) focuses on drug and alcohol use and premature sexual activity.

Today, baseball officials cite RBI as the prime example of what big league baseball does for the communities outside its stadiums. And the partnership with BAGCA has brought RBI expansion to many locales not usually thought of as "inner city."

Yet reports from the front lines on the struggle to revive baseball are sometimes mixed, with the phenomenon of basketball's ascendancy and baseball's demise having spread across so much of black America.

Big Cities

Many of RBI's showcase programs are in Major League cities, where their link with big league teams is close, and RBI can draw upon the teams' unique resources.

For example, the seven-year-old Kansas City program is run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kansas City with strong support from the Kansas City Royals and other local corporations. Royals players and coaches offer clinics for RBI players and coaches. The Royals' head groundskeeper even helped RBI fix up its fields. The Royals lure sponsors to the RBI program with dinners, game tickets, player-autographed items and recognition on the Kauffman Stadium scoreboard during "RBI Night."

As a result, the Kansas City program expects 48 teams this year. "We're opening eyes - showing [kids] that there are opportunities other than basketball and football," said Anthony Dickson, sports/RBI director for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kansas City.

"We're also showing parents you can have a quality baseball program without having to drive 15 miles to the suburbs."

That's the good news.

In Washington, D.C., which has no big league team, baseball and RBI still struggle.

Pressure from the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in 1994 led Major League Baseball to grant $52,500 for a Washington RBI program. Another $9,500 followed in 1996, when, The Washington Post said, about 280 boys and girls participated in four leagues.

But players and good coaches were hard to find in the nation's capital, as in other inner cities. This year the program, based in city recreation centers, expects about 150 kids.

"Maybe things are starting to change," said Keith Stubbs, president of the league's traveling all-star team, the Washington Barons. "But it's not big enough to get excited."

Deep in the Woods

As it struggles in cities, RBI has tried to make an impact in unexpected places.

The Boys & Girls Club of Deep East Texas, headquartered in Nacogdoches (pop. 30,872), sits in a region dotted with national forests. Start-up grants of $9,000 have produced RBI teams at five of the club's sites, including Diboll (pop. 4,341) and Woodville (pop. 2,636).

"We're deep in the woods," says Shelby Walston, Boys & Girls Club director in Nacogdoches. Yet the problem of promoting baseball is much the same; these East Texas clubs serve black and Hispanic youngsters from public housing and low-income neighborhoods, where youth baseball was disappearing just as in big-city neighborhoods.

"Each club has a couple of teams," said Walston, "and we come together for a day and play."

Last year, a new RBI program opened at the Boys & Girls Club of the Crow Nation, headquartered at Crow Agency, Mont., (pop. 1,446). Baseball has been hurting there, too. "Basketball is the most popular sport," says Melva Irons, the club's executive director.

The Crow Nation RBI program started with six co-ed teams, but Irons expects to have 10 teams playing this year.

Baseball Blues

All this is encouraging - RBI is resuscitating youth baseball in places where it was not being played. MLB says it has pumped more than $5 million into RBI in 12 years, and that all 28 Major League cities now have RBI leagues.

But baseball's problems in Peoria, Ill., (not a Major League city) suggest how fragile the sport can be if a love of the game is not passed from generation to generation. Black youths in low-income neighborhoods seem uninterested; so do their parents.

"I spent many hours trying to get interest going," said John Dresden, educational program director at the Boys & Girls Club of Peoria. "I sent fliers to social agencies and city-sponsored programs. I sent letter to churches and neighborhood associations. We didn't hear anything from anybody - no volunteers and hardly any kids.

"We bought new equipment. Some kids seemed interested at first. But since then the program keeps getting smaller." RBI in Peoria has yet to attract 60 kids, Dresden says.

Charleston, S.C., fielded 69 players last year, but the program may go on hold now that the two-year RBI start-up grants have run out.

Rodney Collen, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of the Trident Area, said he hopes a $4,000 grant he's applied for elsewhere will come through to salvage the 2000 season. If not, there will be no baseball.

In Macon, Ga., the boys in black neighborhoods are so focused on basketball that RBI organizers took another approach, said Jackie Baldwin, unit director with the Boys & Girls Club of Central Georgia. "They think basketball is going to get them out of the situation they're in - it's a year-round thing."

As a result, the RBI program in Macon has focused on girls' softball, with 75 girls playing last year. "Now, they're asking when we're going to get started" for this year, Baldwin said.

Education Payoff

Meanwhile, Young's pioneering Los Angeles program grows, now serving 1,700 boys ages 13-18 and girls ages 10-18. Last year, L.A. Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown donated $1 million to support an RBI Academy of Excellence, a program to provide Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) preparatory classes, time-management seminars, human development courses, college tours and college scholarships.

This is another Young idea: Use RBI to maximize opportunities for inner city players to get college scholarships or play college ball. Young says more than 300 alumni of his L.A. program have played ball in college.

Elsewhere, Richmond's program offers after-school homework and tutoring sessions at four sites, with an eye to producing youngsters who will be college-ready, or have the grades to be eligible for their high school teams.

Young expresses pride in RBI's growth. "My only concern is that on occasion people forget the purpose of the program. Some are only interested in winning tournaments."

A pay-off to the major leagues could be coming. Not only will there be more RBI-produced baseball fans down the road, but the first former RBI player made it to the big leagues last year. Vic Darensburg, who played in L.A.'s RBI, pitched in several games for the Florida Marlins.

For RBI, that's a run batted in.