Baseball and Black History:

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Baseball and Black History:


Steve Bandura, right, the coach of the Anderson Monarchs, with his team on the 1947 bus they are using for their civil rights tour.

PHILADELPHIA — LAST summer, a 13-year-old named Mo’ne Davis landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a national sensation after she pitched a shutout in the Little League World Series, where almost all of the other players are boys. She’s believed to be the only black girl ever to participate in the competition.

This summer, she plans to do something else surprising: Visit the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four black girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. Three of them were 14. Mo’ne will turn that age on the day she shows up at the landmark.

For Mo’ne, who grew up in a poor neighborhood here, life since her Sports Illustrated coronation has been electric: a meeting with the Obamas at the White House, a quickie memoir, an appearance in a Chevrolet commercial directed by Spike Lee, even a line of sneakers named for her.

But over three weeks in late June and early July, she and 13 other kids on her team here — the rest of them boys, most of them black, all roughly her age — have a schedule of exhibition games across the country that mixes exhilarating notes with somber ones.

They’re not just hitting the road. They’re taking it south, into history: the church in Birmingham, the bridge in Selma. They’ll play ball, then visit Little Rock Central High School, a battleground in the fight to integrate schools. They’ll swing for the fences, then bow their heads at the house in Jackson, Miss., where Medgar Evers lived.

In a country still lurching toward racial harmony and looking to give underprivileged kids more grounding, grit and hope, it’s a compelling itinerary. And at a time when corruption and criminal behavior have cast a pall over soccer, football, boxing and more, it’s a feel-good reminder of the positive impact that athletics can have on young people — on the way in which sports, too, can be a bridge.


Mo’ne told me that she relished the trip as a tribute to trailblazers who “put their lives out there and got beaten so that we could have the freedom we have.”

But she’s also braced for sadness, particularly in that church, with the ghosts of those girls.

“I do feel really bad, because they could have changed the world,” she said. “And for them to lose their lives at such a young age? You never know what they could have done.”

You never know what they could have done. That’s true not just of children who don’t get to grow up. It applies to millions more — too many of them minorities — who are denied a real chance, maybe because there’s no one to guide them, maybe because no one ever spots and heralds their gifts.

Mo’ne was 7 years old when the team’s coach, Steve Bandura, happened to see her throwing a football. He persuaded her mother, who was skeptical, that she had serious athletic talent, then mentored her, even helping to secure a scholarship for her at a private school.

She has performed well there and her goal is within reach: to go to the University of Connecticut and graduate into a career in the Women’s National Basketball Association. She’s as fierce on the court as she is on the mound.

Bandura, 54, has intervened in a similar fashion for hundreds of other kids who were or are members of his team, the Anderson Monarchs. He started it two decades ago and runs it out of the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, which employs him.

The Monarchs play basketball, soccer and baseball, depending on the season, and the kids are together year-round. The team is named for Marian Anderson, who in 1955 became the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and for the Kansas City Monarchs, a standout in the ? Leagues back when professional baseball was segregated. Jackie Robinson was its star.

In fact, the bus that the Monarchs will use on their summer adventure is from 1947, the year that Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

I first wrote about the team last August, and about Bandura, who ditched a better-paying career in sales and marketing to devote himself to a sports program aimed at instilling pride, purpose and discipline in disadvantaged kids.

With the program he constructed a trade: He gives kids the fun of the game and the camaraderie of a tightly knit crew, and they reciprocate by working hard in school — many of them are top students — and paying rapt attention to lessons beyond baseball. The road trip, which is both amusement and education, perfectly illustrates this deal. So did a recent Sunday that I spent with the team.


Although the kids weren’t due in southern New Jersey for a baseball game until 3 p.m., they were summoned to the South Philly recreation center that serves as their base at noon, and they were prodded to turn their gazes toward a big screen. On it Bandura projected “4 Little Girls,” a documentary about the Birmingham church bombing.

Throughout the year, the team has been meeting weekly to watch movies and discuss reading assignments about the African-American experience and civil rights. In advance of a summer tour in 2012 of cities and stadiums that were important in the ? Leagues, Bandura required that they study up on the history of baseball and its integration.


Frank Bruni