by Si Affron
“No one else is doing anything like this, anywhere – no one’s thought of this,” said Tom Murphy, the Anderson Monarchs’ tour bus mechanic, on a recent Thursday afternoon in Harlem.
“This” refers to the Monarchs baseball team’s summer barnstorming tour, a 4000+ mile, 24-day expedition from June 17 to July 10 that consisted of visits to civil rights movement sites, meetings with celebrities, a cellphone blackout for all the players and lots and lots of baseball.
Their bus and equipment van traveled from hotel to hotel down Interstate 95, across Interstate 20 to civil rights hot spots such as Birmingham and Jackson, as far west as Little Rock and back north via Pittsburgh, Boston and New York City.
The need for a traveling team mechanic becomes obvious when one looks at the bus in which the Monarchs have made this massive circuit.
“The bus is 68 years old, but the motor is only 49,” Murphy said.
Based at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, the Monarchs 14-and-under baseball team is a group of 15 rising 8th and 9th graders who, according to head coach Steve Bandura, are part of perhaps the most competitive inner-city baseball program in the country.
This summer’s barnstorming tour was the program’s fourth, the last being in 2012. But in years past, the itinerary was different and the focus was too. In 2012 they played more games and traveled through the Midwest to sites honoring Jackie Robinson. Says Bandura about this year’s edition, “With the current unrest in Ferguson and in Baltimore, and with the age that our kids are at now – 13 and 14 years old – I felt like it was the right moment to make the civil rights movement the theme of our tour.”
For six months before its departure, the team members gathered weekly to study the civil rights movement — watching movies, reading books,and relating it all to current events. As coaches, parents and players all noted, knowing the history made visiting places like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery all the more powerful. In the words of Bandura, they saw “their history, our history, whether they’re white or black.”
Most Philadelphians remember the inspiring run of the Taney Dragons and their star female pitcher Mo’ne Davis last summer at the Little League World Series. But what most may not realize is that seven players on that Taney team, including Davis, the only household name in youth sports, have always been affiliated with the Monarchs and participated on this summer’s tour.
Though Bandura says that the team would have been able to raise the money necessary with or without the fame surrounding the team, interest everywhere they traveled was certainly increased because of the Taney connection and Davis.
The team got star treatment in nearly every city. They met All-Stars like Cincinnati Reds 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips ( who happens to be Monarchs 2nd baseman Jahli Hendricks’ favorite player), David “Big Papi” Ortiz in Boston, and Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer (catcher Scott Bandura’s favorite player). The team was so big, it even had a police escort in Mississippi.
Players and coaches marveled at the hospitality and treatment they received. But beyond current stars, they got history lessons from a couple of civil rights era notable figures. Legendary home run hitter Hank Aaron, now age 81, met with the team in Atlanta. But maybe even more awe-inspiring was a private meeting and conversation with congressman John Lewis, of Georgia, who was also a leading figure in the civil rights movement and the freedom marches.
Bats, gloves, shades
On the bus from a South Bronx Days Inn to a beautiful ball field in East Harlem to play the Harlem RBI Stars, I asked outfielder and Independence Charter rising 8th-grader Terrence Rainey what the highlight of the trip had been.
“Boston!” he shot back.
Jahli Hendricks, the gregarious rising freshman at Springside Chestnut Hill sitting two rows behind us, agreed enthusiastically.
“Yeah, Boston!” he chimed in.
Expecting an answer about Selma, Montgomery, or the like, and knowing the team’s only activity in Boston was a Red Sox game, I inquired further. Rainey fished out a pair of blinged-out batting gloves from his massive bat bag, replete with sparkles across the front, two names across the straps, and a print of the shaka sign on the insides. Hawaii-born Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino had given Rainey his custom gloves (This was before Victorino was traded to the Dodgers).
Hendricks then pulled a pair of fancy sunglasses off his head, identifying them as Victorino’s Oakleys. The Red Sox were playing the Florida Marlins on that night, and the kids told me that star Marlins outfielder Dee Gordon had given diminutive outfielder Nasir Jackson his even more colorful shades.
The consensus among those near the front of the bus was that the single best gift of their entire trip was Sami Wylie’s new bat, formerly used by Washington Nationals outfielder Michael Taylor. The kids are still kids, constantly perfecting careful camouflage tape jobs around their wrists (in Mo’ne’s case, pink camo), obsessing over types of bats, wearing sunglasses on the tops of their hats on a cloudy day, and talking endlessly about all the cool gear they had collected.
As I probed further, though, the kids reflected on more meaningful parts of their trip.
Carter Davis, the pitcher who attended Masterman last year, mentioned the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham as an impactful stop. On September 15, 1963, four 14-year old girls were killed in the bombing of the church, and as fate would have it, the team visited on Davis’ 14th birthday.
Speedy outfielder Myles Eaddy recalled crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on foot. Remembering the scene’s depiction in the movie “Selma,” he told me about finding his own experience at the site powerful.
“I stood where Martin Luther King and John Lewis stood,” he wrote on the team’s blog. “If it wasn’t for them, me and the team wouldn’t be here today.”
Sure, the kids also want to tell me about less heady events. The Ali punch simulator at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., was a team favorite, as was going inside the iconic “Green Monster” left field wall at Fenway Park. But the kids certainly soaked up their history lessons.
“Experiencing history with this great group of kids has been so great for each one of them,” said Carter Davis’s mother, Carey Davis. She says one of the most profound moments for Carter was seeing and hearing John Lewis’ ability to forgive after the violence of the movement.
After the team’s very first night away, they woke up to the news of the shooting of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
“Immediately, the kids started saying ‘Birmingham,’” Bandura said, making a connection to the 1963 bombing. The present brought the past they had been studying into sharp focus.
Also coincidentally, the team was in Spartanburg, S.C., at Wofford College on the day that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House.
Bandura saw the experience of the tour as essential for the kids, because it will guide their opinions about events, such as the removal of the flag, that will continue to occur during their formative years.
As Bandura put it, “Civil rights is not ancient history, and they’re not too young to know about it and make change.”
Bandura cited certain moments as times when he knew the kids really “got it.” When meeting John Lewis, the questions that the Monarchs asked went far beyond the basics. Scott Bandura, the coach’s son and catcher, asked Lewis what it was like to go against Martin Luther King’s word during the second round of Freedom Rides. Another player asked if Lewis expected to be attacked when crossing the bridge in Selma.
Though the trip was not meant to be a study of baseball history, or even of African-American baseball history, there were times when history and baseball intersected. Given the kids’ insatiable love of the game, these moments were quickly deemed “cool.”
The Hank Aaron visit was one of the best history lessons, according to more than one of the kids, but even playing at Rickwood Field in Birmingham was a big highlight.
“Playing at Rickwood — it’s the oldest baseball stadium in America, and the Negro leagues played there – that was really cool,” said slugger Tamir Brooks.
Even the team’s name relates back to African-American history. Anderson refers their home base Marian Anderson Recreation Center, named in honor of the world famous African-American concert singer who performed from the 1930s through the 1950s. “Monarchs” recalls the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League team that boasted players like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. The team also has alternate uniforms that say “Stars” across the chest, an homage to the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro League.
Playing baseball is always the primary goal of the team’s tours, especially against majority African-American and inner-city ball clubs.
In Harlem, the Monarchs were pitted against the Harlem branch of Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities, or RBI, a Major League Baseball initiative to provide inner-cities with baseball and softball programs. Riding up to a ball field squished in between 1st and 2nd Avenues on East 101st Street, the players commented gleefully on the diminutive field’s close fences.
“Zion may put one on top of the building,” shouted one of the kids from the back of the bus in reference to power hitter Zion Spearman and the apartment building across the street. A coach recalled the 400-foot shot slugger Tamir Brooks had recently hit as he looks out at the mere 180 feet to dead center of the Harlem field. That afternoon, nine balls left the yard, eight of which were hit by a Monarch, including three grand slams.
The final score was 34-2, a score that would be called a blowout if it were a football final. Bandura’s boys and girl are simply on a different level – they are a national-level program that had previously reached a national semifinal for its age group.
When asked if his team, which went an undefeated 11-0 on the tour, had been challenged at all, Bandura said, “Not once.”
“The goal of the trip was to schedule inner-city teams,” he said. “But this proves that the state of inner-city baseball has to change because it’s even worse than people say.”
Bandura was adamant that neither the cost of equipment nor the space needed nor the lack of interest among African-American inner-city athletes is responsible for the decline of talent in inner-city baseball. Rather, he said that inner-city programs lack the leadership and coaching necessary to methodically develop talent.
He pointed out that every inner-city high school has a baseball team, but they just are not very good. Major League Baseball, which was 19 percent African-American in 1986, was only 8.3 percent in 2014, mostly because programs designed to develop top talent do not exist.
Bandura starts his kids out young and slowly builds their skills with fundamentals. His players do not play baseball every season, but when it’s soccer season, the same group is on a soccer team, and when it’s basketball season, they bond through basketball. It’s a tight-knit bunch.
Though the Monarchs win with frequency, winning is far from their primary goal.
“That’s graduating from college,” Bandura said.
At the team’s home field at South 17th and Catherine streets in South Philadelphia, 19 four inch square plaques hang on the wall bearing names of different universities. The program makes a point of honoring every player who finishes college with a plaque that carries their school’s name.
Bandura also recognizes the need for his players to have top-notch secondary education. While this group of players goes to a variety of schools – public, private, magnet, charter – he is known to help kids make their way to area independent schools. Seven of his 15 team members are enrolled at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, and more may be on the way.
Among the SCH standouts, of course, is Mo’ne Davis. Prior Monarchs barnstorming tours have gotten their fair share of media attention. But never before has the attention been this great, and that is undoubtedly due to the bona fide celebrity playing third base and pitching. She is still a star, a year removed from her shutout at the Little League World Series.
When Davis came up to hit in the first inning against Harlem, the sizable crowd came alive. She reached base on an error.
A couple of at-bats later, with the score 23-1, Davis had an idea. A right-handed player most of the time, she took the plate lefty and managed to hit a grounder for a single.
Davis is just one of the boys on this team. She was just as interested in all of the gear as the boys, put her teammates in playful headlocks and, killing time at the hotel at 8:30 in the morning, was quick to call one of them “a dummy.” She’s not a celebrity around her teammates. She’s been playing with some of them since she was 7.
But she’s also perhaps the most well-known youth athlete in the country. When asked if she has to turn down requests for autographs or selfies sometimes, she said, “yeah,” with a nonchalance that demonstrated her ease in handling fame. Even the umpires asked her to sign balls for their children between innings. Bandura fields requests for her when the volume of kids wanting photos and media members wanting interviews becomes crushing.
Media, from major national outlets such as NBC and the New York Times down to small local newspapers, were a constant presence on the tour, but, in Bandura’s opinion, not always for the right reason. There was a premium on Davis, not the team.
“I tell the media that my other kids can talk about the tour just as well as Mo’ne can, but they only want her,” Bandura said. “It detracts from the group for the tour.”
He recalled his frustration with a group of reporters in the Deep South, who did not even want to ask her meaningful questions about the tour and their studies, but rather asked if the bus was hot with no air-conditioning.
Immediately after the game, the players were escorted across the field into the adjacent park for a barbecue with the Harlem team. The two teams mingled for the most part. The Harlem coach complimented the Monarch hitters, and most of the Harlem RBI Stars eventually asked Mo’ne for a photo with her. She obliged. It was the second-to-last day of the tour, and the kids were exhausted. But not too exhausted to play more baseball. They are soon back on the field playing catch.
“The kids really love the game,” Murphy, the mechanic, said, back on the bus. “In the parking lot, before the game, after the game, they always want to be playing. I think this tour is doing a lot for outsiders, too. Whatever prejudices against black people that people may have, hopefully this is softening that. It’s hard to root against these kids.”