What ever happened to South Los Angeles Martin Luther King, Jr. Little League?

“A decade of excellence”

a perspective

[caution – this is a lengthy post]

If you ask people if they played organized little league baseball in their youth, most will affirm with a yes response. The facts are while many youth played some sort of organized baseball, odds are especially if they lived in urban parts of our country, they did not play Little League, Inc. baseball. The game of baseball is straightforward, and most cities offer organized leagues commonly known as park ball. On the other hand, Little League, Inc. baseball has a different protocol of how the leagues operate.  Typically, as the civil rights movement became somewhat of a social equalizer, just as people fled urban centers rather than face integration and to share power, resources and responsibilities there was an exodus and the suburbs became their oasis. As they fled, so did their institutions as well as jobs and other infrastructure. Those left behind were defined as urban. Little League, Inc. embraced the movement and they became well known in most suburban communities. Ideally you would not know the difference of play or league structure, and some would argue what is the big deal?

When I moved back to Los Angeles in the early ‘70’s, 39th & Western Avenue was a popular hotspot with Ray’s Café serving up legendary breakfast fare.  Over the years the community changed, and the popularity shifted as blight became the order of the day. As of this writing we have been residents in West Adams for forty-five years. My daughters were born in 1977 and 1982. Despite the blight which redefined the corner, there was a park on the southeast corner. It was nothing more than a large vacant grass lot with some playground equipment. What it also had was smooth concrete pathways. In the late 80’s it was the perfect venue to teach my daughters how to roller-skate.

The 90’s rolled in and in April of 1992 there was the Los Angeles Riots.  In the aftermath leaders were attempting to legitimately engage the community and create something positive from what was a negative reaction following years of neglect.

The exact date escapes me, but it was either 1993 or 1994 and I was operating Professional Realty Mortgage which was a community-based brokerage. At the same time our youngest son, Fred IV was nearing five years old. I heard about this little league being created which would occupy the grass lot on 39th Street. What really drew my attention was the theme of the league would be based on Negro League names. More important the league was to become part of the Little League, Inc. franchise and the first, charged with setting an example so that other leagues could spawn in urban centers across the nation. It was a gesture to create opportunity for youth.

While the venue was being prepared, Harvard Recreation Center was selected as the temporary home location. We met some of the organizers and I agreed to coach my son’s T-Ball squad. Of course, my wife, Judith was also involved and served as assistant coach.

Mark Durrell and members of his family, including professional ballplayer, Art Burke presented a great vision of offering local youth a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only play youth baseball but be part of the prestigious Little League, Inc. organization.   South Los Angeles Martin Luther King, Jr. (SLAMLK) baseball league was born.  They were supported by Eighth District Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and the Los Angeles Police Department. In addition to the commitment provided by Little League, Inc., they leveraged the support of Peter O’Malley, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers who appointed Vice President of Community Relations, Tommy Hawkins to serve as liaison to undergird the league.

The excitement of the league demonstrated what could happen with the proper investment and leadership. There were at least 500 youth that first year.  True to form, the team names featured several prominent Negro League teams. They also featured Sammie Haynes who played for the Kansas City Monarchs and was spent his time sharing the legacy of the league. His affiliation allowed the league to feature various players to share their stories with those in the new league. It was quite a site to see the youth and their parents beam at being in their presence.

The promise of creating a dedicated field was like a dream come true. It was going to be like comparing day and night to the traditional open dirt fields offered by local parks. Art Burke took charge of the development and made sure it had the components of a professional field. As an example, since it was a Little League, Inc. franchise there was a scoreboard, grass infield, dugouts symmetrical fencing, a concession stand, announcers’ booth and other amenities that had never been seen, at least not in the ‘hood.

Difference between Park Leagues and Little League, Inc.

Baseball is baseball. I get that but park organized leagues are operated by park/city staff. That is not a terrible thing and while many take pride in their job it simply is much different than the requirements of Little League, Inc.  Most know it through its internationally acclaimed Little League World Series, which is held annually in Williamsport, PA. To get there the road starts at the local level or the District level through its Tournament of Champions series as the winners in respective divsion’s (Minors, Majors, Juniors, etc.) advance. To play in that series teams must be part of a Little League, Inc. franchise. Playing youth park baseball does not reach that height or prestige, although the play is perhaps just as competitive.  Another factor is Little League, Inc. is operated on a 100% volunteer corp. which relies on sponsorship and a concession stand whose revenues provide the league with day-to-day operating capital. The Conrad Hilton Foundation stepped up to provide the core $250,000 funding for the field, thus the name “Conrad Hilton Little League Field,” however there were other organizations who also contributed.

Another critical point is park baseball has access to the many public fields. Little League, Inc. baseball as a private organization using some public space but their fields are owned outright. The experience that SLAMLK was attempting to achieve was putting a Little League field in a public park. It is also worth mentioning youth baseball was already being played at parks within a mile of Conrad Hilton Field, notably Denker Recreation Center and Harvard Park.

The maintenance issues

Even though the city has tremendous resources in maintaining their parks, maintaining a manicured baseball field requires extra focus. While dirt and grass and other components might appear basic, there is a protocol in keeping it groomed so that each game features a fresh look. That is another area where our volunteer corps delivered. From dragging the field, to cleaning up the stands to finely cutting the grass, etc. are necessary steps in maintaining the standard we committed.

Nevertheless, through Ridley-Thomas’ support we were able to bridge a positive relationship with our needs and the city. Again, the experiment of creating a Little League, Inc. venue with the city was worth the sacrifice. SLAMLK was the first and Little League, Inc. committed five additional venues throughout urban cores in the United States (L.A., Houston, Harlem, Florida, etc.). Unfortunately, we assumed the type of support Ridley-Thomas provided would remain constant or assumed from whoever represented the area. Most volunteers accepted the challenge and were willing to make the sacrifice of spending countless hours doing their work if there was the appropriate undergirding. It was a lot of work. We would spend two to three hours per night and at least five to eight hours each Saturday and Sunday to make sure the league could operate.

A bump in the road

Harvard Park was a success and we moved into our cathedral called the Conrad Hilton Little League field in 1996. I forget what exactly happened but if I am not mistaken the 1997 year was postponed to complete some infrastructure.  The parents and players were devastated having to halt play and the feeling of another “dream deferred” settled in. Either way, there was no baseball and local leadership under Durrell became stalled. Professionally he was a Sergeant with the Police Department and had a lot going on, so the league became secondary. As previously stated, a little league field requires ongoing maintenance and before our eyes the jewel became a nightmare. It became unrecognizable as blight settled in. We alerted Mark Ridley-Thomas of the condition and the prospects of losing the momentum the league had built, as well as the reputational damage that “people in the hood” do not take care of investments and run them into the ground.  It was somewhat of an embarrassment considering the major investment so many had made to uplift the community.

The restart

In late 1997 we received a call from Martin Ludlow who had been directed by Ridley-Thomas to reorganize the league, including installing fresh leadership. Ridley-Thomas also made a major step in appointing one of his deputies, Noel Pallis as our liaison to ensure our needs were met as well as developing a positive relationship with Parks and Recreation staff.  He came to our home and laid out his vision while soliciting our support.

In somewhat of a tense environment, he transitioned leadership from Durrell and set a new path for the league. His work ethic was impeccable, and we rallied the community to give us another shot. I elevated from coach to Vice President of Operations and Judith became manager of the Concession stand. In addition to the community, we needed to restore credibility with the sponsors and Little League, Inc. Martin was the face of the organization. He brought in Bruce Saito to handle our finances.  Other board members had various task to generate funding. My task was to handle the day-to-day activities to make sure the operations was smooth including being a direct link in communicating with the parents.

We did not have space at the park to house the equipment to maintain operations.  My residence was approximately 1.5 miles from the field, so Judith and I agreed to house the equipment in one of our garages. I know many would not make this commitment, but Martin was a rare breed and had no shame getting the tractor mower from the garage and driving it south on Western Avenue to the park. Again, this was necessary to keep the grass properly manicured. It is somewhat laughable as of this writing as we did this for approximately six months until we could afford a larger trailer which was placed on site at our field.

Critical to the restart was Ridley-Thomas committing the same type of support her provided to Durrell and his team in starting the league. He conveyed to Little League, Inc. executives his commitment to turning things around.  In turn, they also understood what was at stake. They appointed Tom Boyles who was Western Regional Director and Marcel Van Gerwin who was the Administrator for District 25 to “take us under their wings.”   We were one of seven leagues within the district.

The field was restored to its majestic level gaining positive notoriety throughout the city and throughout District 25.  We elevated Sammie Haynes as a permanent part of our operation. Through his assistant, Marie Goree it was magical to see him come to the park in his wheelchair, with limited vision but willing to share the gifts and tradition of the Negro Leagues.

South Los Angeles Martin Luther King Little League was back in business. Our concession stand was fully operable, our field was in immaculate condition and our announcer’s booth featured youth led by the young Angelo Golden, II.  We developed a cadre of players who gained firsthand knowledge that operating a league required more than just players.    We had pre-game activities as well as post-game activities.   In between innings we featured music which was a delight to the crowd. Another key attribute of our league was getting the community to understand and accept what we were trying to accomplish. Urban lifestyles are full of characters from all levels of society. Most are incredibly positive, but some can be problematic.  Also, because we were using a public park all types of people would congregate. On weekends and near the outskirts of the park impromptu musicians would assemble and play. As you might imagine they would also be consuming their favorite beverage of choice or smoking something which at the time was considered illegal. It must also be mentioned there was a liquor store directly across the street from the park. These types of elements would intimidate those not familiar with urban life. We reached out to those on the periphery to accept the league as part of them. We stressed it was something they could take pride in being a part of. They understood music so I reached out to them asking if they could play the national anthem? Nowhere in Little League circles did you have actual musicians play the anthem. But that was the reality at Conrad Hilton field. It was quite a collaboration and moment of pride for all.

Our district supervisor was so impressed with our progress, he appointed our venue to host the Girl’s Tournament of Championship series. Keep in mind we were the “urban” league and part of the group which included more established or affluent areas such as Beverly Hills, Malibu, West L.A., etc. Our league featured Black and Hispanic players. The other leagues featured White players. The lifestyles were different but that is one of the unique things about sport or in our case; baseball is baseball. Several leagues balked at Marcell appointing our league as host. They were fearful of all the negative urban ills they had grown to accept. A few dismissed the fact our field was more pristine than their own and were not willing to travel south of the I-10 freeway.

Marcell assured them there would be no issues. But in fairness, he was that type of proactive person who saw the good in people versus the bad.  On the other hand, the leagues who agreed to field their team heard about our field as well as the “color” and pageantry we offered, and the way youth participated in announcing the games. For them that was something positive they were willing to sacrifice so their players could experience the joy of what we offered.

I forget the name of the league but there was a game scheduled on Sunday. The opposing team decided to forfeit rather than show up. The manager of the team who fielded his team called me and pleaded if I could dress the field and include all our protocols, specifically having the announcer call the names of the players and coaches so they could assemble on the baseline. He and the families were very appreciative as they understood this was a pinnacle of something the players would never forget.

April 1998

Our field had become extremely popular. We did not realize it at the time it was built but we should have opted for a different configuration to allow for two fields instead of one.  Our divisions included Tee-Ball, Minor, Majors and those over twelve who were Juniors played at Harvard Park.  That again was an oversight of those not familiar with how Little League, Inc. operates. They require additional infrastructure to accommodate those needing a larger field such as Juniors and Seniors. Despite the oversight we were grateful of what we could offer.

I forget the exact day, but I was on the mower cutting the outfield grass and my phone rang. It was the Wall Street Journal who mentioned Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley had provided my number to get some comments as Major League Baseball was commemorating Jackie Robinson breaking the color-barrier. The person on the line wanted to know my thoughts of why there was a sharp decline in Black people playing the game.  I forget my response, but the game had changed with respect to access. Then again, that was one of the reasons Little League, Inc. created the initiative in developing our league. Many in urban communities accepted the fact the National Basketball Association did a better job in marketing the sport to youth. Also, it must be noted it is easier to put up a basketball court than a baseball field. So, youth had options. We were steadfast in our commitment to introducing the game to the new crop of kids flooding into the community.

Martin Ludlow was a trailblazer. He had credibility in organizing but shared the same passion I and others had in taking our league to heights many might only dream about. Through Ridley-Thomas, Ludlow made sure we had the budget and necessary items to successfully operate. On rare occasions some ill-informed parents questioned his motives or deemed him an “outsider.”  I was the day-to-day face of the league and cautioned them not to lose sight of the big picture. Despite what some may have felt, there was no doubt he delivered for the league. We had many discussions. Again, as a political consultant he knew the ins and outs and though that connection was able to leverage support for the league. He eventually decided to step out of the shadows of being the “behind the scenes guru” for politicians and put his name in the hat for an open seat. Thus, he won and was seated as the Councilman in the neighboring Tenth Council district. Due to time restraints he needed to step down but committed to unwavering support to keep the league running. I was elevated to run the league as its president.

Lights shine in the ‘Hood

As the league was nearing the year 2000, we were outgrowing our field. Remember youth are in school during the day. We had to wedge three divisions with multiple teams into one field. Like minds can achieve things some consider impossible. Martin and I played baseball and understood the game as well as operations. Additionally, Dwight James was just as knowledgeable as well as other coaches and supporters. It was determined getting lights on our field was the realistic approach to expand play and accommodate the required schedule. Again, one might think that would have been part of the initial infrastructure but for whatever reason it was not. There was fear of urban issues or being out at night in certain areas of the city? As mentioned, we were operating a Little League franchise at a city owned park and any consideration for obtaining lights would have to come from our resources. Martin went to work and after consulting with Musco lighting was able to secure a $40,000 grant from Fairmont tires. The rest is history and to the chagrin of naysayers who professed kids playing night baseball in South L.A. was too risky, we were set to take the league to the next level.

The ceremony was flawless as on a Sunday night we had the president of Little league, Inc. fly to our field as well as Tommie Hawkins and other supporters to “turn on the light switch.”  The park was packed, and the players delighted those in attendance. Thus, night baseball on 39th & Western was no longer a dream but a reality. Through the years of play there was no negative issues as people who prior to the league opening knew the dangers of venturing out at night, discovered newfound satisfaction and safety.

The $10,000 gift

As mentioned, operating the league always required money. This was more apparent as our quest to keep moving the league higher.  Dressing the infield with the same dirt/clay used at Dodger stadium is not cheap!    In the late ‘90’s the Broadway abruptly left the Baldwin Hill Crenshaw Plaza.  I think it was around 2001 I was doing some work on the field and received a call from a public relations organization indicating our league was the recipient of a $10,000 grant.  I could not believe it as at the time our cash position was very perilous.  I was instructed to come to an office on west Third Street to pick up the check. Anyway, I was told the donation could not be publicly communicated and the donor was Walmart as they were preparing to take over the spot left by the Broadway.

I did not fully grasp it at the time, but Walmart was a political issue in Los Angeles because they were considered non-union.  For me, I did not care as my concern was making sure our players had the necessary equipment and infrastructure to compete.  They wanted to do a press-op at the field and officially vocalize their contribution. It was a nervous time for some in our league leadership as they were pro-union and being seen with Walmart management presented a conflict. We got through it, but everyone understood what was at stake in securing support for the league.

Interestingly after the Walmart grant, we continued to receive support from local businesses, particularly the local Burger King on Western and MLK. Honda had me meet them at the field and unloaded several vans which were full of equipment and gear. During those years we were on the move and on one occasion Little League headquarters arranged for a truck load of equipment to be delivered. The only problem was we did not have the space at the park so it was agreed they would come to me home for delivery.  A large truck drove down Harvard and unloaded gloves, bats, balls, bases….everything you could imagine.  It is no wonder what my neighbors thought was being unloaded in the middle of the street?

The racial dynamic

You would think people appreciate sport as fair play and have the motivation to conduct themselves with integrity. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. We would caution parents who tended to use their kids for their own desires. As great as the sport of baseball is, some youth will profess their most unpleasurable moments were playing the game and being harassed by their parents. Thus, it is not uncommon for some to recant their worse experience in growing up was playing baseball.

Starting a league is tough, especially by Little League, Inc, guidelines. Your recruitment is defined by geographic boundaries. They do make exceptions but that is rare. Once we restarted the league, some saw us as easy prey, especially those with nefarious intentions.

A parent of a player would show up out of no-where claiming to have just moved into the area

Another factor is the league is public and new leagues must play close attention to create fairness. Some adults prey on new leagues and show up with a team already in place. Out league was built on an open draft system to prevent manipulation for teams trying to stack their squads with the best players. Try as one might, you still have issues. There was this coach who was hell-bent on having “an all” Mexican team. We eventually caught on to his hustle and escorted him out of the league. On occasions a coach would show up at the field claiming they were unhappy at their current park league and asked he we would have them? Usually after explaining our commitment to Little League, Inc. regulations which made us different than “park baseball” they would recant and move on. We did make one or two exceptions based on the managers commitment to integrate their team with regular players. In the end it worked out, but it was still remarkable how adults would use youth for their own satisfaction of trying to secure a championship.

In 2001 the league was in good standing. Little League was ready to move to their next commitment in locating a field in South Los Angeles. Wrigley Park was selected and even though as a city run venue youth were playing baseball, it was not the same as official Little League.  Our leadership was charged with nurturing the league as well as demonstrating an example on how to successfully operate. The biggest cultural challenge was getting them to understand our operations was 100% volunteer. They were paid staff and while I am sure they enjoyed developing the youth, it is one thing to get paid to do a job and another to do a job because of the passion you have to participate. The biggest challenge was getting them to understand the nuances, protocols and documentation required. In other words; no hanky-panky would be tolerated just to win a ballgame.

The decline

All good things end, sooner or later.  Ludlow had moved on in his political life. I was with a new company so my time at the park became limited. In 2003 we reached our pinnacle as our Minor League team led by Coach Manny and Coach Frank achieved runner-up status in the district’s coveted Tournament of Champions. It became the pride of South Los Angeles. Ridley-Thomas arranged for the team to be honored during a City Hall meeting. Later in the year Ridley-Thomas was termed out as council member and moved on to State government.  He assured us his replacement would maintain the same commitment he provided. Surprisingly, Bernard Parks was Chief of Police when the league originally started so he knew full well the premise of why the league was created. Interestingly he replaced Ridley-Thomas. We did meet at City Hall with his staff and left with the understanding we would continue to receive support. Unfortunately, that did not happen so operating the league without solid council support was the death knell of our operations. As previously mentioned, the time requirement alone is exhaustive. Some in our organization felt the blow was initiated on purpose as the city could reclaim the field and whatever infrastructure was present and simply rebrand it from Little League, Inc. to park baseball.

Sadly, we acquiesced, and some might label it as abandonment while others might label it as a takeover. Either way, the league came to a streetching halt and the rest is history.

If you’ve made it this far, THANK YOU for taking time to read. It is lengthy due to the complexity and historic nature of the topic.

In addition to those who have been mentioned there were countless parents, coaches, community folk and other who gave their heart in making the dream of Little League, Inc. first urban league a reality. Dwight James, Wayne Kimbrough, and his wife. Angelo Golden, Janet Golden and their two beautiful children. The Randy Robinson family. O.T.. Ramirez, Deon and his brother Marcus, Coach Frank and Coach Manny, Selwyn & Doris Terry, Umpire Mike, Chili, Bill Taylor and his three grandsons and so many more that I cannot remember after all of these years.  It was a great decade, and we were proud to exhibit what could happen when a community supports an initiative.

Hopefully in all that we tried to do, we brought a smile or two along the road and allowed youth and grow up with a positive experience while playing little league baseball.