Can Baseball Thrive On The South Side?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Orlando Hudson isn’t getting much playing time for the White Sox, but he nonetheless holds an important distinction. He is the only black MLB player in the city of Chicago, where about 33 percent of the population is black. Why have African-American players and fans drifted away from baseball? And does it matter? This is the second piece in a four-part series of stories asking those questions.

In the sectional finals of this year’s Illinois 3A state baseball tournament, Simeon Career Academy defeated Harlan Community Academy 3-2. What was notable about the game was not the final score, but that both teams and coaching staffs were made up entirely of African-Americans.

Simeon (at 81st and Vincennes) and Harlan (97th and Michigan), along with the Jackie Robinson West Little League (Aberdeen and 107th), are institutions in their South Side communities, and reminders that baseball is still a vital part of inner-city life in Chicago.

We asked some of the coaches, parents, and players to discuss baseball’s role in African-American neighborhoods, and the challenges baseball faces.

Leroy Franklin, Simeon High School coach since 1981

I’ve had 26 players drafted, two first round picks, one national player of the year (Jeff Jackson in 1989)…. Now it’s just so expensive…. We’ve got some kids around Simeon that would want to play but they can’t afford to play…. All the young ladies want a basketball player.

I can call 15 [public league] schools and say. “Who’s the head baseball coach?” They will tell me, “I don’t have one as of yet….” Sometimes they don’t have coaches before they start playing the game. Nobody wants to coach baseball. Why? I have no idea.

When I first started, my first 20 years, you had much more in the programs. You had maybe 15 programs that were very good baseball teams. Now you only have a few…. The board [of education] does not put that much into baseball… To coach baseball, first of all you gotta be a good doggone coach and you gotta get paid…. In the suburbs they got 10 coaches and they’re all getting paid…. The board allows schools to have more basketball coaches. They get about six paid coaches. We’ve got to fundraise, we’ve got to buy everything. It ain’t easy.

Tyler Johnson, 17, Harlan

I don’t want to play basketball, because where I live everybody plays basketball. It’s hard to get publicity…. To me baseball is the hardest game to play, that’s why I like it…. Basketball you can be more physical than mental…. If you’re smart, you can be the best [baseball] player in the world. A lot of black kids don’t get the opportunity to show what they have for scouts…. We don’t get publicity the same way…. I play on the ACE travel team [a White Sox-sponsored summer league team], and that has benefited me…. I wouldn’t have gotten the looks without it. [People in the neighborhood] see I’m going places. I’m getting as many looks as some of the basketball players.

Bill Haley, Pres. of Jackie Robinson West Little League since 2005

Bill Haley at the Jackie Robinson West Stadium before a recent game.

To really catch the kids, you have to start at an early age. We found tee-ball was key…. If you wait until 10 or 11, the basketball court will grab them. It’s just an easier game. You show up with a ball, 15 or 20 minutes, court’s full. To pull [baseball] off, you really need some adults involved. Just to get a game like this going, probably took 10 adults.

Our league is unique because of the tradition. A lot of the coaches actually played here. It’s sort of like an island. Our numbers are up. We recently added girls’ softball. We added a division for kids with special needs, so we’re kind of on an upswing, but I do realize we’re not the norm.

Our neighborhoods are changing a little bit…. My block has a couple foreclosures…. Older people are moving out, a lot of younger families are moving out. You’ve got to have the dads, once you lose the dads, you lose so much…. Once communities start breaking down, for whatever reason—Chatham is just a case where people got older, Roseland would be a more economic thing—baseball becomes tougher to pull off.

[Simeon and Harlan] have feeder programs. You have kids that will leave here and play varsity at Simeon and Harlan. Kids have a good foundation, a good base, and Simeon has a good tradition. In a way, they’re good because we’re good.

Reginald Brock, 13

I started off doing baseball with my dad so it’s just exciting to do something with him. Plus, I was good at it…. Sometimes it’s strange to play baseball in this neighborhood and I do think about it, but I don’t wish I was playing basketball or something like that. I notice there aren’t that many African-Americans. I wish I there were more.

Kenny Fullman, Harlan High School coach since 1993

In Chicago, basketball is king…. Everyone loves the game of basketball. You don’t wear a helmet, you don’t wear a hat, the girls in the schools like it…. It’s also an instant payday if you make it to the pros and they also get full scholarships for basketball players.

There’s an opportunity with all the minor league teams…but at the collegiate level…no full rides, and kids are looking for those full rides.

Without being politically incorrect, but this year we were the sport that [Chicago Public Schools] took the assistant coach from…. Two years ago we lost sophomore baseball…. Seems that we’re always the fall-guy for spring sports.

Blake Hickman, 19, Simeon (drafted by Cubs in 20th round)

Simeon’s Blake Hickman in the on-deck circle.

Baseball was my first love, I think it’s that simple. I never liked basketball. I kind of like being the odd one because a lot of my friends play basketball.

Eddie Curry, Director of Baseball for CPS 2002-10

I graduated from Englewood High School in 1973, from Jackson State in 1977 and was drafted by the Astros…. The biggest thing to me is the coaching and the training…. A lot of the kids try to get into the rah-rah sports–basketball and football…. Simeon and Harlan, they get the kids from Jackie Robinson. They put the hours into developing a program…they develop an entire program by having a relationship in the community…. These kids have talent, they need to be nurtured.

Prentice Luster, parent

We’ve been a part of Jackie Robinson for many, many years. I’ve had nephews that came up and now a nine-year-old son. He started playing when he was four or five and he’s been growing up in the league…. It has a lot to do with the parents and volunteers. There’s a lot of things going on the world today and we have dedicated parents who make the time to come out here. It’s a well-known organization here at Jackie Robinson.

All of the kids nowadays lean toward basketball. For the most part, baseball is one of the hidden gems in our area. It’s harder to be real good at baseball without parent participation.

Tommy Washington, 12

Tommy Washington hopes to play high school ball at Simeon.

I really think there’s too many people trying to play basketball and football around here. I think I’m better at baseball…. I was always outside throwing a tennis ball with my cousin when I was younger…. Most of my friends play basketball and football, but baseball is normal to me…It doesn’t matter to me [that there aren’t more African-American players on the Cubs and Sox]. I don’t think about it…. I like Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham because of how they play the infield and they can hit, too. They’re good, to me. My dad played high school baseball at Philips and at Washington Park when he was growing up, so he helped me learn the game.

Lawrence Noble, 11

I love the excitement and how a game can quickly turn upside down. I like it better than basketball and football even though my friends play those sports…. I chose baseball because I like to watch baseball and I thought it would be cool to try it. I play basketball, too, but I just like baseball better. My favorite player is A-Rod…. I want to go all the way—high school, college, the MLB.

Justice Page, 9

Baseball is my favorite…My friends like basketball because they like shooting and passing and I like baseball because I like hitting and fielding. I started when I was either four or five in the rookie league. My favorite player is between Derek Jeter, Bryce Harper, and Ichiro, but I’m going to have to say Bryce Harper. He’s my inspiration.

>> Read Part I of ChicagoSide’s “The 8 Percent” Series, here.

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BEN STRAUSS, Senior Editor, is a writer born, raised and living in Chicago. He contributes regularly to The New York Times. Reach him on Twitter @bstrauss1.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house; photos courtesy Ben Strauss.

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