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Little League Celebrates Black History Month

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (Feb. 22, 2007) – Each February, the achievements of African Americans are recognized with the observance of Black History Month. The global diversity of Little League Baseball and Softball provides a broad canvas to display such accomplishments.

Little League has been integrated since its early years, and many African American players have graduated through the program to eventually play professional baseball. Among the Little Leaguers currently in Major League Baseball are Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, New York Mets’ outfielder Lastings Milledge and Tigers’ bench coach Lloyd McClendon. Mr. Milledge and Mr. McClendon both played in the Little League Baseball World Series, as did Billy Hunter, director of the National Basketball Association’s player’s union.

Baseball and black history have been intertwined since the creation of the Negro Leagues and gained prominence with Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the Major Leagues. Similarly, Little League, through its various components and relationships, has created opportunities for African American children to enjoy the benefits of playing Little League.

Created in 1999, the Little League Urban Initiative was built on the success of a program in Harlem, N.Y. The Harlem Little League was founded by Dwight Raiford, a former chairman of the Little League International Board of Directors, and his wife, Iris, a Trustee of the Little League Foundation. The Little League Urban Initiative is now operating in more than 200 leagues in the United States.

The Urban Initiative provides assistance packages for eligible leagues that aid the local volunteer group with equipment acquisition, capital improvement cash grants, field development and renovation, access to Little League Baseball and Softball Education and Training programs, advocacy, and networking. To date, the Urban Initiative has yielded 2,779 teams, and provided approximately 33,000 players the opportunity to play Little League in 85 U.S. cities.

Since 2004, the Urban Initiative Jamboree has welcomed up to 10 regular-season teams to Williamsport, Pa., home to Little League International and the annual Little League Baseball World Series.

Beginning with the 2007 Jamboree, Torii Hunter, all-star outfielder for the Minnesota Twins, and current Major Leaguers Shannon Stewart, Rondell White, LaTroy Hawkins, Dontrelle Willis, Jacque Jones, Joey Gathright, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Gary Sheffield, will support the event through the Torii Hunter Project. This group has contributed funds to the project which is designed to encourage more African American children to play baseball. This Memorial Day weekend, 14 teams (10 Major Division teams; 4 Junior Division teams) have been invited to participate in the Jamboree.

Past Jamborees were financially supported by Major League Baseball and have included an educational component entitled - “Breaking Barriers: In sport. In life.” This program created by Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, is based on the values demonstrated by Mr. Robinson and uses motivating, baseball-themed activities to reinforce literacy skills, mathematics, science and social history in addition to addressing critical issues of character development.

Little League International currently charters three leagues that bear the name of the baseball legend. A Jackie Robinson Little League in Chicago and Newark, N.J.; and Jackie Robinson South Ward Little League in Jersey City, N.J., all pay homage to the former Dodgers great.

Chicago’s Jackie Robinson League is part of the Chicago Little League Urban Initiative Committee that is currently working with the Chicago Bandits of the National Professional Fastpitch Softball League (NPFSL) to grow the participation in Little League Softball on the south side of the city.

Last summer, the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum hosted “Discover Greatness: An Illustrated History of Negro Leagues Baseball,” a traveling exhibit on loan from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. The exhibit featured nearly 90 framed photographs showcasing the history of African-American Baseball from the late 1800s through the 1960s. During its two-plus months on display, nearly 13,000 museum patrons had the opportunity to view the artifacts.

Tony Richardson, a Little League district administrator from New Jersey, owns an extensive collection of Negro League baseball memorabilia, and on occasion has displayed it at the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum.

The Little League Museum also has on display a photo of Tony Dungy, head coach of the Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts. Mr. Dungy, who became the first African American head coach to win the National Football League championship, is a Little League graduate and was enshrined in the museum’s Hall of Excellence in 1998.

Other African Americans enshrined in the Hall of Excellence include, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1992); Leonard Coleman (1996), former president of Major League Baseball’s National League; Mr. Hunter (2000); and Mr. McClendon (2006).

Recently, Dan Velte, director of league development for Little League International, traveled to the African nation of Ghana as a guest of the Africa Development Foundation (ADF) baseball delegation that included several former Major League Baseball players.

Many prominent African Americans have passed through the Little League program. Some have gone on to great prowess in the sports arena, and others in a vast array of professions, but for those past, and those yet to come, all can be proud to call themselves Little League graduates.

Lloyd McClendon, right, came to be known as “Legendary Lloyd” after he hit five home runs in five official at-bats during the 1971 Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Mr. McClendon, currently a coach with Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers, played and managed in the Major Leagues. In 2006, he was enshrined in the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum’s Hall of Excellence, joining several African Americans who, as graduates of the Little League program, have been so honored.
African Americans have long enjoyed the benefits of playing Little League, and through programs such as the Little League Urban Initiative, will continue to have opportunities to experience all that being a Little Leaguer has to offer.