Batters up: Reggie Williams pitches baseball, lessons to African-American youth
by Jesse F McClure
When Reggie Williams played baseball in the 1980’s for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians, he was one of many African Americans in the major leagues. Today, less than eight per cent of major league baseball players are African American and interest in baseball seems to have greatly declined in the African American community.
Williams, who is a vice president of the Memphis Redbirds Triple A baseball team, runs two programs designed to get inner city youth interested in baseball again.
STRIPES (Sport Teams Returning in the Public Education System) Program supports baseball and softball programs in inner city middle and junior high schools in Memphis. The baseball program is for boys and the softball program is for girls.
In 1992, the city school system discontinued baseball and softball programs in junior high and middle schools. Six years later, the Redbirds – the only professional sports team owned by a community based non-profit foundation – began the STRIPES program as part of the team’s mission. During the 2007 school year, almost forty schools fielded teams in the STRIPES program and involved nearly 1000 students.
Williams also leads the RBI (Returning Baseball to the Inner City) program, which focuses on summer baseball and softball. The Redbirds began the RBI program in 1998 as part of a nationwide effort to restore interest in baseball within inner city communities.
During the first year of operation, the program involved six sites in inner city Memphis and had nearly 250 youngsters on teams. In 2007, the RBI program operated on 15 sites and had more than 1,000 children on teams.
When Carver High School won one of the Memphis City Schools baseball championships this year, head coach Steven Bratcher said the team won in part because so many of his players had participated in the RBI program.
This year at least six students who participated in the STRIPES and RBI programs will attend college on baseball or softball scholarships. Last summer one of the RBI teams participated in the regional RBI tournament in Houston.
Williams said that while developing baseball and softball skills are important, the most important part of his programs is “the efforts to instill sound values in the young people in the programs.”
He said an inherent part of the programs is encouraging young people to pursue their educational goals along with baseball and softball.
Williams is an example of how baseball and education can be combined. Growing up in South Memphis, Williams was a star pitcher on the Southside High School baseball team. His nickname was “Black Magic” because of the way he dominated opposing batters.
After high school, Williams enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., but the former Memphis star did not make the college’s baseball team during his first year.
“I cried like a baby when I didn’t make the team,” he said.
Rather than quit school or give up baseball, Williams decided to work harder in school so he would be ready if his dreams of playing major league baseball did not come true. He committed himself to taking his baseball skills to a higher level.
The decision and commitment worked. He led Southern University to two baseball championships, graduated cum laude and the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him.
When his professional baseball playing days ended, Williams returned to his hometown and earned two masters degrees from the University of Memphis. He became a teacher in the Memphis City Schools system and prior to joining the Memphis Redbirds, was an assistant principal.
For Williams, his position with the Redbird’s is another way “to work with young people. I believe that I can make a real, positive impact on the lives of youngsters.”
Williams knows the important role baseball has played in African American history.
“After Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, it was one of the first places where African Americans competed on an equal basis,” he said.
Baseball is an important part of the history of African Americans in Memphis. The Memphis Red Sox were a major part of the scene during the heyday of Negro League baseball. Martin Park was the place to see and be seen in African American Memphis. The Memphis Red Sox team was one of the few Negro League teams that owned its own stadium.
Recently, Williams hosted a television show on WKNO-TV with former Memphis Red Sox player Joe Scott that highlighted the importance of baseball in the African American community in Memphis and around the country.
Williams said the biggest challenge he faces today with the RBI program is finding good coaches. He needs men and women who cannot only teach the skills of baseball and softball, but who can be role models for the youngsters.
Williams also wants coaches who will help youngsters discover baseball can be fun and exciting. And while coaches receive a small stipend, “Coaching in our programs has to be a “labor of love,” he said.