By: Harold Michael Harvey
In the early 1990's there was much talk about what would happen to young black males. Statistics at the time indicated by the age of 25 every one of three would either be dead or confine to a reservation called a penal institution. The outlook was bleak. Nightly news reports filtered into our homes, scenes of young black men, laying stiff in the streets covered with blood or being paraded to jail with hands cuffed behind backs. It was not a pretty sight.
Our church and community leaders debated what could be done to stem the raising tide of a lost generation. We discovered an absence of fathers in the home on an alarming scale.
Thus, the notion of mentor/mentee relationships took hold of the community. African American men of good moral character and professional standing were called upon to put their hands on as many young boys as they could and steer them into adulthood.
Each February my calendar would be filled to capacity with speaking engagements to local schools. The kids got a chance to talk with a lawyer and could dream, that one day, they too could become lawyers.
Visiting the schools once a year offered little impact to eliminating the absence of male role models in the lives of inner city kids. I needed a way to place my hands on as many young black males as possible for a prolonged period of time.
I didn’t know how to go about doing this until one day in February 1991. I came home from a day of defending several young men in the robbery of a Brinks truck in which the driver of the truck shot and killed one of the robbers. That evening my wife announced she had enrolled our son in the Little League program at Cascade Park in the five and six-year-old division. I had wanted to wait much later to get him involved in baseball. God forbid, I introduce him to the game and he didn’t have my passion to play it at a high level of intensity. To my chagrin, he took to baseball like he was born to express himself through the science of the game.
Coley was drafted by the Pittsburgh Crawfords (under the recommendation of Chico Renfroe League teams took names from teams who played in the Old Negro League).
A schism developed between the coach and the team mom. The coach quit before mid-season. The void was filled by a committee of fathers who had a player on the team. I was the only father who had played baseball beyond high school. I wanted to teach fundamental baseball skills, the others wanted to coach the kids how to beat other five and six year olds. There is quite a difference in the two. I was suspended from the coaching staff. I have a knack for being suspended by people who do not like my point of view.
I asked the Cascade Park and Recreational Center to allow me to organize a new team the following year. They agreed and the Homestead Grays Youth Baseball Team and Educational Academy was born. The academy was designed to teach sound fundamental baseball skills and to prepare young men for adulthood.
We started with a group of 15 boys in the five to a six-year age group. The very first kid I drafted was Andre Burgin. Andre was drafted on the recommendation of my son who came home from school one day and proclaimed at the dinner table I had to draft Mr. Burgin. “Why,” I asked?
“Because he is the only kid in the class who can out run me,” Coley said.
So Andre Burgin became a Homestead Gray.
I waited several years to draft a kid I had my eyes on since he was three years of age. Coley and Courtney English met in preschool. We had him on an all-star team I believe the summers of ‘92 and ‘93. He came to us full time in 1998. He was the intellectual on the team. Courtney could be counted upon to alert me when the defense was out of order or when it might be time to get another pitcher warmed up in the bullpen. He was playful, but keep his head in the game.
We picked up the most physically gifted athlete in those years when Teddy Minters’ mom caught a bus with him and her three-month-old baby (seated in a scroller) in order to get Teddy to our first practice. It was cold and windy that February afternoon, and I was impressed with his mom’s commitment to bring him out without the assistance of a man in the house.
Seeing Katrina Minter standing on the sidelines that afternoon, holding onto her baby’s scroller, told me in no uncertain terms, what was at stake. There were far too many women running their households and attempting to be fathers to their sons while maintaining their role as mommy. This dilemma is akin to pulling oneself up by ones own booth straps. Such a task is nearly impossible.
The 1992 Homestead Grays were as hapless as the 1962 New York Mets. We managed to win four games. There were two teams we beat twice. Yet the 1999 Homestead Grays were as amazing as the 1969 New York Mets. We won our first 10 games before losing on the road to our arch nemesis the Forest Park Indians in a disputed call. Later that year this team won the Park Championship, the league championship and the Sandy Koufax District Tournament.
They went off to high school as champions. We stayed together for another four years, until I sent them off to college, scholarships in hand. All of them, that is, who wished to go.
Before it was time for college, we had a lot of work to do. I perceive baseball as a science, but when played well, it is a work of art. Thus we taught team work as a practical reality of everyday life through teaching the art of hitting the cut off man and making an accurate relay throw to nab the advancing base runner.
When it came time to teach the importance of each member of society performing his duty to advance the cause of society, I installed the hit and run play. The hit and run play is different from a straight steal in that the batter must make contact with the baseball to prevent the runner from being thrown out at second base. The batter and runner must execute the play to precision for it to be successful.
Then I talked to them about the ultimate sacrifice was for a teammate to give himself up for the team. This lesson ended in a demonstration on the art of the sacrifice bunt. Wherever we traveled to play, high school coaches, college coaches and professional scouts would approach me after the game and remark how discipline and fundamentally sound the Homestead Grays played.
Sometime after they entered high school, I recalled these sweet little kids suddenly began to use the “N” word. Where it came from, I don’t know. I addressed the use of this word head on and once suspended the team’s top pitcher, Truett ÒNeal, for repeated use of the “N” word. He came back from the suspension after apologizing to the team. I then suggested instead they use the word Negro.
One day I dropped by Fredrick Douglass High School to check on several of my players who were on the baseball team. I was standing behind the dugout and heard someone say, “Negro please . . . ” I glanced inside the dugout to see several Homestead Grays engaged in a conversation. I smiled, said hello and disappeared into the sunset with the knowledge they had picked up something from the Homestead Gray experience.
Ten years ago yesterday these young men culminated an incredible week. They sweep through the state district tournament like Sherman’s march to the sea. Five teams were placed on the field to confront them, including their arch nemesis the Forest Park Indians. None could withstand the precision with which the Grays took the field that week. Eight years of hard work came down to one grand week in ‘99.
The following Homestead Grays hold college degrees today: Andre Burgin, Business, Florida A&M University (now working on a Master’s degree at Clark Atlanta University), Coley Harvey, Journalism, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University (Sports Reporter, The Telegraph, Georgia Tech beat writer), David Reid, Morehouse College, Arnold Relaford, Gordon College (hip-hop artist), Courtney English, Morehouse College (a candidate for Board of Education, Atlanta Public Schools), Calvin Booker, Georgia Tech (a long shot prospect NFL quarterback), Jonathan Harris, Tuskegee University, Billy Lucas, Babson College, Terry Bailey, Oglethorpe University (a second year law student at Mercer University), Melvin Purdue, St. Anselm ( still playing semi-pro baseball in California), Zettler Clay, Georgia State University(a Master's candidate in Journalism, University of Maryland) and Blake Covington, Emory University (currently A working actor). The team catcher, Keith Marsh is currently enrolled in Life University. Jimmy Jucks currently enrolled at Atlanta Metropolitan College as well as Victor Mshindi McIntyre. Three of them are parents Marcus Wilson, Anthony Foster and Keith Marsh.
While we celebrate the accomplishments of these young men, it grieves my heart to think of the few who did not avail themselves of the opportunity to advance their education. My door is always open. My phone number has not changed and I would love to hear from them.
Great things are expected from this group. We will check back in another decade to see how they have impacted society.
© July 12, 2009