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The Big Little League

June 15, 2017
The memories are still vivid and come rushing forth for Rev. Quay Rich, one of the earliest alumni of West Baltimore's nearly 60-year-old James Mosher Baseball little league, whose games are still played on its original two diamonds located behind James Mosher Elementary School at 2400 West Mosher Street.

"I still think it was the greatest game ever played in the James Mosher league," said Rich, 68. "I was pitching against Stanley Williams. They called him ‘Poop.' He was quite an athlete and quite a pitcher. It was the championship game in the second year of the league [in 1961]. 

"The Cubs versus the Athletics; I was on the Cubs. Mr. Meacham was coaching the Athletics, Mr. White was the coach of the Cubs. His wife called us ‘the mighty, mighty Cubs.' I was the best left-handed pitcher in the league -- that's no boast, just a fact. ... I had my good stuff; Poop had his fastball. I pitched a one-hitter and struck out 12 guys. Poop pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15. Jimmy Hurd hit a home run off me for the only hit. There was no fence back then; the ball just rolled and rolled. It kept on rolling, and Jimmy ran around the bases."

Playing little league baseball is the stuff memories are made of, and Rich recalled the end of that game in great detail.

"Jimmy Hurd lived across the street from me on the 800 block of Monroe Street; he and Poop were neighbors," said Rich, who later earned distinction as the first African-American member of the Baltimore Orioles' front office staff, working as assistant director of season ticket and group sales from 1986-1994. "The Massey boys lived two blocks up. Jake Massey walked and stole second and third in the bottom of the last inning, and Mr. White had him running up and down the baseline. He taught us how to do that Jackie Robinson thing, and then I remember him yelling at Jake to ‘go!' It was like that play with Jackie Robinson and Yogi Berra in the [1955] World Series. Jake got under the tag, but the umpire called him out, and the whole team started crying." 

The James Mosher little league, which is believed to be the oldest continuously running African-American little league, is still providing these types of memories and learning experiences for kids in West Baltimore.

Out of the Ashes

While the league has thrived mostly due to the support of former players who've become members of James Mosher Associates, as well as the financial support of local businesses and community leaders, it received a tremendous boost two years ago in the form of a donation of equipment and a clinic organized by the Major League Baseball Players Association.

In the aftermath of the turmoil that rocked Baltimore City in April 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American who lived near James Mosher Field in the city's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and died of injuries suffered while being transported in a police van after being arrested, members of the James Mosher Associates reached out to the MLBPA for assistance. 

"The last couple of years we've been fortunate to get support from outside help," James Mosher Baseball president William Neal said. "The Freddie Gray situation brought some attention to the area. There were organizations that dealt with baseball, and they wanted to see what they could do to help the Sandtown community. ...  We were a baseball organization that was in the backyard of where the Freddy Gray incident took place, so we started getting some attention."

Former major league outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, who played with the Orioles from 1993-1998, was among those who took an interest in the cause.

"I got a phone call from Jeffrey Hammonds, who works in the MLBPA office," said Kenny Abrams, who had worked for the Orioles as a community relations assistant when Hammonds was with the team. "He said he was watching this on television and was dismayed at what he saw and said, ‘I can't believe that B-more is on fire,' and wondered what he could do to improve the situation.

"Jeff had been gone from Baltimore for quite some time, and we have a lot of folks that are from the area, but he took the time out to say, ‘I want to see how we can help make the situation better,' and I commend Jeff for that."

About two weeks after the civil unrest, an MLBPA contingent consisting of executive director Tony Clark, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, and current and former Orioles such as Hammonds, Frank Robinson, Eric Davis, Adam Jones, Delmon Young and first base coach Wayne Kirby, arrived at James Mosher Field to present the league with new equipment and conduct a three-game clinic. 

As part of the day's activities, Clark addressed the reasons why the MLBPA chose to support the James Mosher league. 

"The players association, through our players' trust, has been investing in inner-city kids for some time, but having an opportunity to do something here is something we've never done, and that's connecting ourselves with a league," Clark said. "As we looked for opportunities, we realized very quickly that the James Mosher little league was the right league to connect to. … [You] realize the lives that they're affecting and the number of kids that have been coming through the program."

Michael Singletary, James Mosher Baseball's chairman of the board and former league president, said he was impressed by the presence of the MLBPA and the significant community turnout. 

"There were 300-plus kids from the program with their parents and players, and MLB representatives put on a great clinic," said Singletary, who played in the James Mosher little league in the 1970s and has managed the league's 9-12-year-old Braves team since 1994. "The former players were base coaches, and the kids got a chance to meet Frank Robinson, one of our former heroes."

The James Mosher little league fields a total of 18 teams across three age levels: tee ball (ages 4-5), instructional (6-8) and majors (9-12). In addition, there are five traveling teams: 10-and-under, 13-15, 16-18, 13-and-under girls softball and 13-and-under fall league. 

"There are very few resources when it comes to recreation in the Baltimore City area," Abrams said. "And that's what 

[MLBPA] could do best when it comes to helping out with funding and fields and baseball equipment, not to mention just lending their name to things, which can help open some doors for this kind of grassroots organization and improve their situation."

Issue 234: James Mosher Baseball - Adam Jones
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones on MLBPA day in June 2015 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of James Mosher Associates)
 
All-Star Administration and Alumni

James Mosher Baseball's mission goes beyond the games played on the field. Its "founding philosophy, aims and purposes" are as follows: 

"To elevate and advance the moral, intellectual and social conditions of the youth of the community and combat juvenile delinquency. To encourage and promote good sportsmanship and encourage citizenship through sponsoring, promoting and supporting nonprofit little league activities. 

"To advise and assist in coordinating activities related to the operation of little league sports activities and to stimulate public interest, support and participation of the community with respect to such activities."

Founding member Al Meacham, 91, is James Mosher Associates chairman of the board emeritus and the oldest member of the association. He said he is the only one around who saw the first pitch thrown in the league's inaugural season and the final one thrown last season. He can still be found sitting with a group of the James Mosher Associates' elder members in the shade of a construction storage shed down the third base line of the league's main field.

"The idea was conceived by the James Mosher Elementary School [No. 144] principal [Dr. Mary N. Brooks]," said Meacham, the former assistant principal at Dunbar High School and unit principal at Calverton Middle School. "She wanted a group of men to devise an activity for boys with an emphasis on improving intellect and social conditions, learning how to be a part of the community and improve relationships with others. When you leave the program and become successful, you should give back to the program what you received from it." 

This philosophy is exemplified by the long list of James Mosher Baseball alumni serving as managers, coaches and members of the league's association, such as groundskeeper Eric Davis.

"I played up here in 1962 … [the field] was nothing but mud when I was here," said Davis, who also helps by getting some of the kids to the games in addition to paying league fees for those who can't afford them. "Those apartments over there was nothing but a cemetery. These kids don't realize this field was nothing compared to what it is today. We played on dirt.

"I live downtown on the 22nd floor in the high rise, but I come here every day. I love it. I take care of the field for them. … I gather these guys in these apartments from this neighborhood to play some ball. Some of them could pay, some of them couldn't pay. I pay out my pocket. That's what I do. I tell them we would never turn you away from a baseball club. You want to play baseball, James Mosher will make sure you play. We will come out of our pockets and make a way for you."

Among the numerous business and community leaders who played in the James Mosher little league and have continued to their fulfill the commitment of giving back is former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke (1987-1999), who played during the league's formative years. 

"I'm one of the old salts. I played for Allen Meacham Sr. on the Anderson Athletics," Schmoke said. "They were sponsored by the local Anderson Car Company.

"[Mecham] provided structure. He talked to us about life lessons. He made it clear that this was a learning environment -- not only in sports but in other lessons of life. He brought a lot of what he had in the public school system onto the baseball field and let you know that he took the business of teaching very seriously. He was a tough guy but a good man, somebody that all the players admired and felt that he contributed a lot to our development as young men."

Schmoke and his wife, ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia Schmoke, sponsor the league's Schmoke Eye Expert Twins.

Alumni such as Schmoke and the long lineage of administrators and members of the association are the backbone of James Mosher Baseball and have helped to enhance the league's reputation and draw the attention of big-time benefactors.

Current league president Neal has been involved with James Mosher Baseball for more than 40 years.

"I don't love baseball as much as the program," Neal said. "My real love is the program for the kids. I played in this league for one year because when the league started, I was 12, so I played one year, and I decided to come back and give support to the league. The real driving force was when I came back from Vietnam and decided I want to give something back. I came out of the service in 1973. I didn't have any kids or anything, but I wanted to give back, and I got invited to come back and help. … As time kept moving, I started becoming one of the older members."

Neal has witnessed a dramatic transformation of the dynamics and demographics of the league. 

"We started out with six teams 58 years ago and probably 90 percent of this community was middle class," he said. "We had doctors, we had lawyers, we had government workers. They all lived in the community, so when we started out it was good and the kids really branched off and became successful at other things. And part of it was because of the lifestyle that was around them and not just in baseball. At that time, probably 70 percent of those kids had a mother and father in the household, and now, 58 years later, that is just the reverse. Probably 30 percent of our kids have a father and mother in the house. 

"Now we've got grandparents raising them, we've got aunts raising them, we've got uncles raising them and we've got mothers raising them. One of the things that we strongly support and we try to help with is the understanding of a bond and keeping the family together." 

Issue 234: James Mosher Baseball - Mayor Catherine Pugh
Mayor Catherine Pugh with players on Opening Day 2016 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of James Mosher Associates)
 
A Call from Ripken Baseball

Fueled by the involvement and support of its alumni and the MLBPA, James Mosher Baseball is at an all-time high with 23 teams playing at its various levels. The future is bright, as its two fields on the campus of James Mosher Elementary are scheduled to be refurbished at the conclusion of the 2017 season.

Coming on the heels of the MLBPA involvement, the league association was approached by the Ripken Baseball youth baseball organization.

"About a year after MLB was here in 2015, I got a call from the Ripken Foundation," Neal said. "They said, ‘We're going to turn one of your fields into a Ripken field.''' I said, ‘OK,' but I also explained to them that it was not our field but the school's field. They originally started dealing with the school, but then they found out about our legacy and longevity on the field and that we were the ones who were maintaining it and keeping it and they started talking to us. 

"Originally we weren't too keen on the idea because we were happy with our field, but after we did our homework and researched it, we actually sent some teams out to play on the [artificial playing field] and we found out it wasn't a bad thing. It's not very often you get somebody that wants to come and spend a million dollars on your baseball field and program." 

In June 2016, the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation allocated $1.2 million to refurbish the facilities and rename it Eddie Murray Field at BGE Park Home of James Mosher Baseball. Renovations will include a turf field, enclosed dugouts, a new backstop, bleachers and a digital scoreboard.

Fast approaching its 60th anniversary, the James Mosher little league is still creating memories that will last a lifetime for both its current players and long-time members.

"I never thought I would see Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken on this field. That was my dream," said groundskeeper Eric Davis.

And with a little help from its friends, Neal is proud to report that the league is continuing to fulfill its mission:

"We're very fortunate to see kids who have went on to do great things, not all in the line of baseball, but in the line of education and becoming good gentlemen and good ladies, going out into society and being very successful in different areas," Neal said. "They come back to us and remind us that James Mosher really started the idea and the thoughts of coming together and playing together as a team and having parental support outside of home, and it really makes us feel good because we know that we use baseball as a tool to raise the kids and to make better citizens of them -- to help them prepare and help them understand what teamwork is about and what life is about."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified James Mosher Baseball as a charter member of the Little League Baseball organization. PressBox regrets the error.   

Issue 234: June 2017