The Disappearing Black Baseball Player

African Americans are opting out of baseball — but the sport won't let them go without a fight

The Disappearing Black Baseball Player
ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK

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click to enlarge The Redbird Rookies parade through Busch Stadium in a July 2009 game. - JERRY ADLERSFLUEGEL JR.
JERRY ADLERSFLUEGEL JR.
The Redbird Rookies parade through Busch Stadium in a July 2009 game.

Tony Evans spends the first weekend in March canvassing for Redbird Rookies around Normandy.

He is a believer not only in the benefits of baseball but youth sports generally. He was one of twelve kids and grew up in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood in north St. Louis.

"My high school football coach made a better person out of me, because at that time I was going down the wrong road, and if it wasn't for his positive influence in my life, I wouldn't have graduated high school," Evans says. He has been a football or baseball coach for most of his adult life. His parents couldn't afford for him to play in little league, so he appreciates that Redbird Rookies is free.

Evans works at Centene as a data analyst and is also a city councilman in Normandy, which has long suffered from underperforming schools. The state stripped the district of its accreditation in 2012 after years of poor standardized test scores. (That year, just 22 percent of students passed the communication arts test, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) Earlier this school year, education officials recommended that the district again receive accreditation following an improvement in test scores and school climate.

Jones leaves fliers with information about the league on the counters at a barbershop and trophy shop. And he hands them out at a local grocery story. By the time Saturday is over he's signed up twenty kids.

He is focusing on the youngest kids, the five- and six-year-olds eligible for tee-ball. Last year he had about 45 kids in that age group; this year he aims to attract 100.

"Some people, if you give them a flier, they will look at it and then throw it [away]," says Evans. "I try to hold a conversation with them and let them know about the benefits of Redbird Rookies and its off-field programs."

For example, the organization partners with Schnucks on a healthy eating program that provides them with coupons for free foods like carrots and raisins and, with a proof of purchase, rewards them with Cardinals tickets. The organization also takes participants to a show at the Sheldon Concert Hall and sponsors a health fair.

Jones recalls one child who had never been to a dentist, with teeth that "were just so out of order." He visited the fair and connected with a dentist and orthodontist for free care. Now, Jones says, "He just won't stop smiling."

Daviette Saunders works with Jones at Centene. A couple years ago, she heard him talking about Redbird Rookies and decided to sign up her grandson, ten-year-old Rayshawn Minor. He lives with Saunders because his mother, Saunders' daughter, is "not equipped to being a mother yet," Saunders says. They moved in October from Normandy to nearby Walnut Park because of a "terrible, terrible landlord," she says. In both municipalities, "I wouldn't want him just out and about by himself."

"There is nothing in our neighborhood — there are no close rec centers or comfortable places where he can be around other boys with some supervision," Saunders says.

Minor wanted to "be the class clown and had trouble sitting down in class," his grandmother says. They use Redbird Rookies as an incentive for him to buckle down in school; otherwise, no games or trips to the batting cages or jazz concerts.

Despite the fact that they moved, Minor will continue to play in Normandy. The field, sponsored by Cardinals Care and named after Cardinals Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, sits in Robert Hoelzel Memorial Park. Even in March, before it had been prepped for the coming season, the field looked nice. It features a large scoreboard, dugouts and an outfield fence.

Minor was one of the captains of his team last season and wore 42, Jackie Robinson's number. He explains that it's because he saw 42, the 2013 film starring Chadwick Boseman.

"He stole bases and I want to steal bases too," he says.

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