Towson Turns Youth Baseball Into Lesson On Negro Leagues

By David Steele
Updated: April 24, 2007

Judy Johnson

Judy Johnson

BALTIMORE — Judy Johnson was one of the best all-around third basemen of all time, a Negro leagues standout in the 1920s and ’30s and one of the first Negro leagues players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Ryan Reed likely doesn’t know all of that yet.

But the 11-year-old infielder will know it soon, because he plays in the Towson Recreation Council youth baseball leagues and wears the uniform of one of Johnson’s former teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Each of the 44 teams in seven age groups this season is named for one of the legendary teams of pre-integration baseball and wears the official logos.

On top of that, each player is assigned a report about a notable player from the Negro leagues team he represents. It takes the education quest of the uniforms a step further. It appears to be about as fun a history lesson as a kid can get.

“I know his nickname, but that’s it. I’m going to look him up and find out more,” Reed said Saturday, opening day of the TRC season at the fields adjoining Dumbarton Middle School and Rodgers Forge Elementary. “It sounds pretty cool.”

The same can be said for the entire concept. It is the only league in the Baltimore area known to have Negro leagues names this year, although it has been done elsewhere around the country, typically in the inner city or more heavily minority-populated areas. A relative handful of the roughly 480 players in this county-affiliated league are African-American, Asian or Latino.

That only made the start of the season — and league commissioner Greg Gabell’s noble experiment (to borrow a phrase) — even more moving.

“When I thought about this two years ago,” Gabell said the day before the opening ceremonies, “I hadn’t even thought about the 60th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson coming up. But it came together perfectly. Everybody has gotten onboard with it. Everybody is excited about it, even if they’re still learning about it. That’s the point.”

The players, parents and coaches embraced the idea, proudly marched in Saturday’s parade, and sat in rapt attention during the featured speeches by two Baltimore-based former Negro leaguers, former Elite Giant Bert Simmons and Joe Durham, the first black player to hit a home run for the Orioles.

Some of the parents were looking up the two players in Negro leagues yearbooks during the ceremony. Others were scrounging for programs and yearbooks, which listed Web sites and other sources of the leagues’ history for all participants to use.

To the surprise of many adults on hand, when Simmons, 83, and Durham, 76, asked questions of them about the leagues and about Robinson’s entry into the majors, several youngsters knew the answers.

What owner, Simmons said, signed Robinson with the Dodgers? “Branch Rickey!” someone shouted. Why didn’t baseball let other Negro leaguers play before Robinson? “The color of your skin?” came an answer from the back. Why did Robinson succeed where others might not have? “He didn’t fight back!”

“I tell you what, we had some knowledgeable kids out there,” Durham said afterward. “There are grown people who didn’t know the names these kids did.”

The unique uniform idea proves the old saying about necessity being the mother of invention. It also proves that Major League Baseball — despite its own creativity in honoring Robinson’s legacy recently — doesn’t deserve the luck it sometimes gets.

Were it not for prohibitive licensing fees that price out many youth leagues like the TRC, that might have been a field full of the usual Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox on Saturday. The organization, Gabell said, simply couldn’t afford it.

Last year, in Gabell’s second year as commissioner, the teams wore minor league logos, and he turned it into a lesson on geography, again with reports and other teachable moments. “They were the Volcanos last year,” said Beth Kotchick of Rodgers Forge, whose two sons, Ben and Graham, play in the league and whose husband, Rob, is the T-ball league president.

“Salem, Oregon,” Rob Kotchick added. “So they know where that is now.”

This year? They play for the local Negro leagues representative, the Elite Giants. And, Beth Kotchick said, her sons have a little more perspective on history, the society they live in now and the one that existed before them.

“Just the fact that there was a time when there were separate leagues,” she said. “They ask, ‘What do you mean, you couldn’t play because of the color of your skin?’ That’s a foreign concept to them.”

The entire day was — and the entire season should be — living proof of the hope for their generation.

“To see all these kids and their parents sitting together, not worrying about who looks different from them,” Gabell said, then paused and added, “That’s my ’60s thing coming out. Brotherhood and unity. It’s been great to see.”

It will be even better to see when those nearly 500 kids from the Towson area are grown up and know a little more about baseball and life than they otherwise might have — including who Judy Johnson was.