The team lined up against the fence in a north Minneapolis park to get their uniforms, not knowing much about the Kansas City Monarchs, the old Negro Leagues or that legendary pitcher Satchel Paige had once worn No. 25.
The bright red uniforms were highlighted by the name M-O-N-A-R-C-H-S in silver stitching, and 7-year-old Zytavius Williams got No. 17. Chauntell Schleif, his mother, said the family had a book at home about the Negro Leagues, but no one had yet read it. Another young mother, Keosha Morris, said when she was growing up baseball was considered “a white sport” but added that her generation might have “more of an open mind.”
Coach Jackson Hurst’s team is an experiment, an attempt by Minneapolis park officials and the Minnesota Twins to get more young black children — mostly boys, but also a few girls — interested in a sport that many blacks have fallen away from. And so is trying to build a connection to the Negro Leagues, which faded away more than a half-century ago but included some of the game’s greatest players before Major League Baseball was desegregated in 1947.
At Farview Park, where the Monarchs began practicing last month, there are plenty of distractions — some comical and others much more serious involving gunshots and broken homes. Eight fidgety players lined up for practice on a humid Wednesday, including Malachi Vice, age 7. At another practice, Hurst sent a player to play second base — only to watch as the player, bored, sat down on the field.
“Anybody ever watch baseball?” Hurst asked the team as it took the field for its first game.
“Ye-e-e-s-s-s,” the team shot back.
“It’s a long game, isn’t it?” he said, preparing them for what lay ahead. One player sped out to center field without taking a glove. When the team gathered for its second game in late May, an ice cream truck floated by, inexplicably playing “White Christmas” on a loudspeaker.
Standing and watching the Monarchs, Sara Lavelle said tying in the Negro Leagues all makes sense. “Definitely here, especially in [the] inner city,” said Lavelle, whose 8-year-old daughter, Amara, was playing baseball for the first time. It helps “knowing [that] black people before you” played the game at a high level.
To those counting small victories, the number of youth baseball teams in north Minneapolis this year has inched into the double digits.
And even as far away as Kansas City, Mo., where the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum sits, the Farview Monarchs have a fan in Bob Kendrick. Kendrick, the museum’s president, said the “disconnect with the sport” among blacks has been alarming and that a whole series of socioeconomic reasons have led to it no longer being seen as a “blue-collar sport.” Blacks, he added, not only do not play baseball but “we’re not going to games, either.”
The scarcity of blacks playing baseball in north Minneapolis is hardly the game’s only problem.
The National Sporting Goods Association reports that overall participation in baseball among America’s youth, ages 7 to 17, dropped 27 percent in the past decade, from 8.2 million in 2005 to 6 million last year.
In addition, the number of children playing Little League baseball has been slipping since hitting 1 million for the first time in 1964, 2 million in 1985 and peaking at roughly 3 million in 1997. The league said there are now 2.4 million participants, though the figure also includes those playing softball and now counts participants in more than 80 countries.
Reality sets in
Farview Park lies barely 2 miles from the Twins’ $555 million Target Field, but the distance in many ways seems much farther.
In the week before the Monarchs’ first game, the neighborhood had three shootings and three more reports of shots being fired. In the first four months of the year, police reports documented a frightening tally for the neighborhood: three rapes, 30 robberies and 28 aggravated assaults.
The season’s most disturbing incident came during the early afternoon on Memorial Day, three days before the Monarchs’ second game and just one block from home plate. One man was killed and two others were wounded in what police said was a neighborhood dispute that erupted into gunfire. “Maybe they should have been playing baseball,” 16-year-old Brianna Lavelle said of the ongoing violence as she watched the Monarchs practice.
As the Monarchs held practice on a Wednesday evening, one mom had her daughter demonstrate what would happen should the coach hear shots being fired and yell “F-I-R-E-D-R-I-L-L” when the team is on the field. “You do this,” said the girl, who quickly dropped to the ground near the dugout.
Steve Zimmer, the parks coordinator at Farview, said that during the winter thieves dismantled the bleachers at the baseball field, likely selling them for scrap. New bleachers, he said, were on the way. “They’re going to weld the next one,” he said, hoping that makes them harder to steal.
Farview’s wading pool opened during the last week of May, and Sarah Rossman, the youth program specialist at the park, stood by the crowded pool on a weekday evening. One 3-year-old girl wanted help going to the bathroom. After the girl scooted away, Zimmer said, “We don’t know when she got here [today] — that’s the honest truth.”
Zimmer estimated that half the children come to the park without adult chaperones. If baseball helps involve children and their parents, Rossman said, she is all in favor of it. “If they’re here, then we know that they’re doing something positive,” she said.
Police Inspector Michael Friestleben commands Minneapolis’ fourth police precinct, which includes Farview. Friestleben grew up in north Minneapolis and, because he is a baseball fan and memorabilia collector, has a bobblehead of Buck O’Neil, the Negro Leagues star who played mostly for the Kansas City Monarchs.
Friestleben said playing baseball in north Minneapolis is part of a menu of things adults and the police can do, from reading books to handing out free bicycles. None of them, by themselves, will turn around a broken neighborhood, the police inspector said. “It’s baby steps,” he added.
Reminders of the past
The Negro League leaflets that were given to the parents at Farview explained why the team would be known as the Monarchs. “These ‘pioneers’ played a very important part in shaping professional baseball,” the leaflet stated. Alongside a black-and-white picture of Paige in a Monarchs uniform, the leaflet added that the Monarchs won the first Negro World Series in 1924 and won seven pennants between 1937 and 1946.
The Black Yankees, another of the four north Minneapolis teams named after a Negro League franchise, got their name from a team that played in Yankee Stadium in the 1930s and 1940s. Their leaflets featured a grainy photo of Black Yankees slugger George “Mule” Suttles. The Webber-Camden neighborhood team, meanwhile, was named after the Newark Eagles, which featured Monte Irvin and four other players who eventually made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But there was also confusion. Russ Barclay wondered whether the team he was coaching — the Stars — was named after the Negro League team from Detroit, or the one with the same name from St. Louis. “Which Stars [we] talking about?” he asked. But Barclay added: “I love that we’re linking the baseball of today here in north Minneapolis with the history of the Negro Leagues.”
There are strides being made. While there were just four tee-ball and coach-pitch teams last year in north Minneapolis, there are 11 this year, said Kent Brevik, a recreation supervisor for the city’s parks. The Negro League theme, he said, is being expanded this year to teams in northeast Minneapolis.
“We really did a pretty heavy marketing on KMOJ [radio],” said Brevik. The FM radio station, located not far from Farview Park, has long championed Minneapolis’ black community.
But on Saturday nights at Farview, baseball’s problem is easy to see. Basketball is still king here and, inside the park’s 1970s-era community center, dozens of black teenagers stood in line for “Night Owls,” a park program that offers basketball and a chance to stay off the streets and out of trouble. The doors open at 7 p.m. and close at 7:30, and those leaving after that time are not allowed back in.
Baseball “is just not interesting to young kids these days,” said Justyn Hardwick, a 53-year-old supervisor who operates the scoreboard at “Night Owls” and during the week also coaches baseball at Farview. “They don’t even play baseball on a video game.”
The disconnect might not apply only to blacks. Scores of Hispanics — including families who clogged the neighborhood with cars and then spread out blankets on a hill overlooking the field — regularly watch evening soccer games at Farview and produce far larger crowds than show up for any baseball game. Similarly, a daylong flag football tournament for the Hmong community, held in May at Farview, was deemed a big success.
Lacing up his shoes for “Night Owls,” 18-year-old Nate Lomax said he once played baseball but “I don’t play like I used to” since moving from Chicago to Minneapolis. Lomax plays basketball nearly every day now, in part, he said, because his friends do. “It’s more fast-paced and, in my opinion, it’s more exciting to watch,” he said.
And baseball? “If it’s on, I’ll watch it — occasionally,” he added.