For D.C., Pittsburgh kids, baseball weekend is also a lesson in African American history

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tags: African American history, Baseball history

Nekhi Gilbert, 12, clapped and shouted from the home team dugout at Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast. The competitors were ahead, but Nekhi and his teammates were not about to give up.

The Saturday game was an exhibition between Nekhi’s D.C. team and one from Pittsburgh. Despite the heat, which reached 90 degrees before noon, and the tough competition, coaches and parents reminded the kids to stay positive and respectful.

Nekhi tried his best.

“Hey, little bro,” he shouted to the next batter. “Don’t swing at everything!”

And a few minutes later, when his teammate hit a single, “There you go, little bro!”

The 9- to 12-year-olds played three innings, just under two hours, and ended with a final score of 9-1, Pittsburgh. But winning wasn’t why they were there.

In anticipation of next year’s 100th anniversary of the Negro leagues’ beginning, the kids were brought together to learn about African American history and culture, especially its role in baseball. And, of course, to play some ball.

The exchange program between the D.C. Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh aims to give the kids a chance to explore both places. It was inspired by the Homestead Grays, a Negro league team that united the cities from the late 1930s through the 1940s.

The Homestead Grays split their home games between D.C. and Pittsburgh, referring to themselves as the Washington Grays when they played in the District. One of the team’s most famous players, Josh Gibson, known as “the black Babe Ruth,” became the second Negro league player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sean Gibson now runs the Pittsburgh-based Josh Gibson Foundation in honor of his great-grandfather and helped organize the exchange.

“The most important part of the weekend is for the kids to learn the history of the Negro league and to understand that there was one time when black players could not play with white players,” Gibson said.

The weekend comes as Major League Baseball continues to see a significant decline in African American players. According to data from USA Today , only 7.7 percent of major league players this season are African American, with 11 teams having only one black player.

MLB does have a significant Latin representation, Gibson said, and it might be easy for kids to see Latin players and think they’re represented because of the color of their skin.

That’s why Gibson said it’s important to continue programs like this exchange and others put on by his organization and MLB to bring more African American kids to baseball.

Decked out in “GRAYS” T-shirts, the Pittsburgh players arrived on Friday morning and met up with the D.C. players to see Washington. They toured the Howard University campus. They walked through the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

For D.C. players Nekhi and Mikal Davis, 11, one of the most important parts of their experience was a visit to the museum, where they were struck by exhibits on racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Both can now cite stats they learned about how many black people are arrested and incarcerated in the United States.

Semaj Rattliff, 12, of Pittsburgh said he’ll remember how much he learned about the history of racism and slavery in the United States .

For Dremir Watson, 10, of Pittsburgh, the best part was seeing the mural at Ben’s Chili Bowl, which featured Josh Gibson and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, the first female pitcher to play in the Negro leagues.

Most of these young players see baseball as more than a game.

Read entire article at Washington Post

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