Washington, D.C. In their second year in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, the DC Grays may not yet be improved over last year’s inaugural team on the diamond. In establishing themselves in the Washington community, they already are.
The Grays draw their name from the Negro League’s Homestead Grays, who spent much of their existence in the Negro National League of the 1930’s and 1940’s. The team dominated the NNL before the integration of the major leagues in 1947. The original Grays were based in the Pittsburgh suburb of Homestead, but began in the late 1930s to play many of their home games at Washington’s Griffith Stadium.
The current Grays are trying to replicate the success of their namesake club on the diamond, but as importantly in providing an opportunity for high level baseball for African-American players. This year’s Grays roster includes six African-American players.
“Our goal is for the best black players in the country to want to play a summer for the DC Grays,” said team president Mike Barbera.
To that end, the Grays are developing relationships with scouts and coaches that yield a steady flow of prospects, much like a professional franchise. Those relationships include ties with Grambling, Savannah State, Coppin State, and several other historically black colleges and universities.
For the Grays, a 501-3(c) non-profit, diversity is an organization-wide goal. Board member Brad Burris and general manager Antonio Scott both played college baseball for Howard University, the District’s historically black university. Assistant coach Jimmy Williams is part of the Grays’ staff and was head coach at Howard before the university’s program was cut in 2002. District Little League players are invited to meet players and serve as batboys during games.
Last year, playing at Gallaudet University’s Hoy Field in D.C., the Grays finished at 18-21 and in 7th place in a ten-team circuit. This year the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, commonly referred to as the Ripken League, has expanded to twelve teams and the Grays are 14-16 through July 12, after finishing 18-21 in 2012. The league’s top four finishing teams make the playoffs.
Most of the Grays hail from outside the DC area, so the team has to provide housing for much of their roster. In 2013, they added a housing coordinator and now have seven host families in DC and Alexandria.
In their inaugural year, 11 Grays stayed on the Gallaudet campus in dormitories. That arrangement, although convenient to the field, is costly for the team as they pay a nightly rate per player to the university. The dormitory-housed players are responsible for their own food, adding to their expenses. Housing proved the team’s biggest single expense last year. This year the Grays have reduced the number of players living on campus to five.
Barbera hopes that his Grays will return in the fall to their respective colleges and become word-of-mouth advocates for the team.
“The most important thing for recruiting is for the players to have a good summer experience – good competition, excellent coaching and a ‘D.C.’ experience,” Barbera said.
Beginning in 2013 the Ripken League has two teams promoting African-American participation in the sport. In addition to the Grays, the league added the Baltimore Presstman Cardinals, a traditionally black team with roots dating back to 1962. The Cardinals began when team organizers realized that they were being systematically segregated from white amateur players. Their 2013 lineup is predominantly African-American.
“We recruit African-American ballplayers but we’re just trying to get kids in the city to look at these young men as heroes and positive role models. Because kids are walking away from baseball,” said Cardinals’ president Reggie Smith, whose father Robert lived on Baltimore’s Presstman Street and used its name when founding the team.
This year, the Ripken League showcased its diversity efforts when the Grays hosted the Presstman Cardinals at Hoy to open the 2013 summer campaign. The Grays prevailed, 5-4.
“How many other summer college leagues in the country are making efforts to grow baseball in the African-American community?” asked Barbera.
Tom Flynn has contributed to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. He compiled the photo history, Baseball in Baltimore, in 2008 and has written one novel, Venable Park. Check out Tom’s journal at boxerjournal.com