The Black Out of Baseball

By Michael Tillery
Updated: August 15, 2005

DELAWARE — Come July, every little leaguer quietly wishes to make the all-star team. Although you practice every day for what seems like an eternity in the dog days of summer, the honorable experience and the reputation that comes with being selected brings memories that you never forget.

To play in Sun Oil Little League, you had to live in the surrounding areas of Chester or Aston, Pennsylvania. Chester, PA is similar to any inner city with the usual hard working class, law-abiding citizens as well as those that have lost their way. Chester High School generates serious basketball talent–recently producing Jameer Nelson of the Orlando Magic.

I loved playing in Sun Oil Little League as a twelve year old and was really upset when my father uprooted my family and moved us to nearby New Castle, DE in the middle of the season. Because I started the year while living in Chester, the league gave me an exemption and permitted me to continue playing in Sun Oil while living in Delaware.

My regular season coach, Bob Toomey, who worked in nearby Newport DE, picked me and my stepbrother up from New Castle and drove us to Aston, PA for games. It shows the spirit of the late seventies when people did things for each other, regardless of convenience. Thank you Coach Toomey.

Michael Jordan hadn’t yet ushered black little leaguers off the diamond and onto the hard wood. These were the times when Dr. J, Julius Erving ruled the NBA and baseball was still a love for kids of the inner city. We loved baseball because our fathers influence. They idolized the “Say Hey Kid”, Willie Mays and the all-time home run king, Hank Aaron.

Chester brought in raw athletes that the Sun Oil coaches salivated when initially seeing–hoping to transform them into the next Reggie Jackson or Rod Carew.

Dick Stanwell was my coach on the minor league Mets. I remember playing as a nine year old where whites were the minority in the minor league division.

When drafted as a ten year by Dick Toomey of the Yankees, I was one of three blacks on the team. It was crazy to experience the disappearance of blacks on this level. Living in Chester there was still an apprehension to want to play with white kids.

Sometimes there were fights, but ultimately, because of a Coach Toomey, we won together. He was the most successful coach in the league because he didn’t take any bs from anyone. Sun Oil could be considered his league. He usually brought in a former player whose youth sufficed in helping us relate to what was a perceived culture shock.

When I was twelve, I was one of the best. I, along with a white kid, Brian Cheyney, carried the league because of a friendly rivalry that I won’t soon forget. We took turns hitting grand slams off each other but had the sportsmanship to congratulate one another as we rounded third base. We wanted to strike each other out with all our souls, but we had this unspoken understanding. This is where I learned to trust my fellow man first, regardless of race.

I ended up being arguably the best player in the league and when it came time for all-star selections I was considered a shoo-in. Sun Oil picked it’s all-stars directly after the championship game. It was a bittersweet moment for me because we unfortunately lost the title game on a triple play, to the Indians–coached by my former coach Dick Stanwell.

Because the Indians won the league, Coach Stanwell was awarded the job of coaching the all star team. Breathing hard and quite nervous, I heard the announcer congratulate player after player until all but one spot remained. I was visibly upset but finally relieved when my name was called with the usual cliche of last but not least.

Coach Stanwell always informed me that he regretted drafting me when he moved up to coach the Indians. His familiarity with me caused him to play a joke on me that taught me a lesson of humility at a very young age.

We played a scrimmage against Chester Youth league and promptly were shut out on a one hitter. Chester youth was an all black league, playing their games feet from where Jameer Nelson grew up on Kerlin Street. Their pitcher was a huge left hander who had an intimidating, moving fastball. He struck out at least 15 batters in a shortened game.

For some reason unknowing to me, I didn’t play. I complained to anyone who would listen as the opposing pitcher mulled down all-star after all-star. Coach Stanwell grew increasingly tired of hearing my T.O. like mouth. He reluctantly put me in to pinch hit as the last batter. I lined a 3-2 pitch off the fence on a swing where my eyes were closed.

I had an attitude because I didn’t play the whole game. Coach Stanwell let me have it in front of the entire team. He was definitely a screamer. He called me every expletive imagined and I was so discouraged I didn’t know if I was going to play on the team anymore.

The next day I had a field trip to Washington, DC. It was also game day. The bus wasn’t supposed to get back to DE until four. My game was at six. When my stepmother picked me up, she informed me that I was picked to represent my league as the pitcher.

I now knew why I didn’t play in the scrimmage. I was totally shocked and felt undeserving because of my childish actions the day before. Because of traffic I arrived 5 minutes before game time. I quickly warmed up but left my curve ball in DC.

I struck out the side in the first and the second innings before all hell broke loose in the third. I got rocked for 5 runs and 2 more in the fourth before Kevin Louth replaced me. Kevin was more of a control pitcher who was known for his 9 pitch innings. Offensively, I was 0-2 with a strike out before we rallied in the fourth.

I smacked a double into left and felt good as the shortstop complimented me. Kevin gave up 3 more runs. One was unearned because I overthrew first from my new position of second base. We were down 10-2 before we rallied to get the score to 10-7.

I told Coach Stanwell I had a feeling I was going to hit a home run if I got the opportunity to bat again. My confidence grew when he believed in me. With two outs, the bases loaded, and me in the on deck circle, Joey Montgomery struck out on a full count pitch to end the game.

I was seriously heartbroken. The feeling in my gut was something I never felt before. This happened to be a single elimination tournament and our dream of Williamsport was nothing more than a bad memory.

What Coach Toomey and Coach Stanwell taught me was an early lesson in humility that I continue to use in my everyday life. It’s what I taught to the kids I coached, and my children to this day.

Baseball is a dreamy sport. It also teaches patience and discipline. It has all but died in the inner city and has been replaced with broken chain nets and glass ridden basketball courts. City councilmen have replaced manicuring fields with expense accounts and self-convenient lobbying. You can drive by some city fields and see broken signs hanging by one nail, rusted backstops and overgrown infields.

It’s a disgrace.

Only 9 percent of major league players are African-American. Hall of Famer Joe Morgan is sponsoring an Urban Initiative program that is helping to achieve a nation wide city resurgence in baseball where most children are underpriveleged.

Kids need for something else to do besides scraping their knees on glass and dribbling a flat weathered basketball. Those who aren’t outside are inside playing simulated games on various game consoles that cost more than what baseball equipment would.

Teach your children to throw a baseball. Take them to games and experience eating a ballpark frank. Basketball is great for coordination and I have to agree that sometimes a baseball game is slow to develop. Those moments are left for a child’s imagination to dream.

To dream of a better life, better circumstances at home, and that their fathers and brothers return safely from Iraq. To dream that they have something to eat when the fat rats in government are thriving and throwing away half eaten meals in a busy moment.

Each one teach one.

Dads put down the beer and enjoy your child’s smile because you are spending time teaching him the game of baseball. I’m sure you can visualize your wife drying plates, while she peers out the kitchen window seeing the child you both love having a great time enjoying a moment with his Daddy. So many don’t get this chance. Please don’t take this opportunity for granted.

These images have become our past. When are we going to teach our kids the patience and discipline that I alluded to before? Baseball is a great sport. Former Negro League players are probably saddened more kids are choosing other sports to satisfy their thirst for competetion.

Did they all play in vain? I choose not to believe so.