Anderson Monarchs, barnstorming South Philly ball club, visits New York

Gallery Image 186331 - Fox
From left, Tyree Sheard, Mo'ne Davis and Sami Wylie of the Anderson Monarchs check out the view at Yankee Stadium as they watch the Chicago White Sox take batting practice. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

First stop Saturday was Yankee Stadium. They stood right on the field behind home plate and watched the White Sox taking batting practice. But when you grow up in a world of SportsCenter, being there isn't what it used to be. "I thought it was bigger," said Tamir Brooks, 11.

These 15 boys and one girl - the Anderson Monarchs, an almost entirely African American baseball team of 10- and 11-year-olds - were on Day 2 of their 22-day, 4,000-mile barnstorming tour.

It didn't help that they had been stuck in nightmare traffic coming to the ballpark on their un-air-conditioned bus and were now standing in the noon sun.

They posed for a group photo.

"Smile," coach Steve Bandura said. "This is Yankee Stadium! Are you kidding me? This is going right online. If you're not smiling, we'll Photoshop you right out of there!"

They were all smiling immensely a few moments later when African American Yankee stars CC Sabathia and Curtis Granderson came out to say hello. Granderson asked them all about the trip, and when he heard they were on a bus with no air-conditioning, he yelled over to Sabathia, "Hey C, No AC on the bus."

Sabathia looked shocked, truly. "No AC?"

"1947," Granderson explained.

These children who play on a travel baseball team based at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philadelphia are touring the country in a 1947 Flxible Clipper coach, trying in so many ways to replicate the feel of 65 years ago, when the old Negro League teams barnstormed America in the same model bus. The Monarchs, founded by Bandura, who organized this trip, are named after the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League team of Jackie Robinson before he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and broke baseball's modern color line.

Granderson told the Monarchs this trip was the opportunity of a lifetime, to enjoy the experience and the people they meet, and "show the world how much fun playing baseball can be." He said he hoped their trip and the attention it would generate would stimulate interest in baseball among African Americans.

"I'll put it on my Twitter and keep up," he said. He also said he loved their high socks and told them, "I enjoy the pants up, so keep them high."

The Monarchs stayed a couple of innings and then headed for Brooklyn to visit Robinson's grave. They had watched Ken Burns' Baseball documentary over 18 weeks at their recreation center in preparation for this trip, this solemn visit.

On the bus, Bandura, 51, a Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department employee, asked the boys, "If you could say one thing to Jackie Robinson, and meet him right now, what would it be? I want you to think about that. I'm going to give each of you a baseball, and you're going to write that private message."

When they arrived at the cemetery, each player, one by one, approached the grave, paused to reflect, and put down a ball.

"I thank you for changing the game so we can play," Nasir Jackson wrote.

"Thank you for making rights that black folks can play baseball," wrote Darius Isaac, who is just 9.

"Thank you for opening a door for black people to play baseball," Brandon Gibbs wrote.

The bus will be going from New York to Pittsburgh, then Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, all the way to Kansas City, host of this year's baseball All-Star Game. The Monarchs will visit the Negro League Hall of Fame and also attend Major League Baseball's home run derby. Then the bus will swing back East.

Along the trip, the Monarchs will be playing against other 10- and 11-year-old teams and seeing Major League games.

Bandura, 51, organized a similar trip 15 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's arrival in the major leagues.

In 1997, he wanted to show the inner-city children the world.

This year, it's the opposite.

"I want to expose the country to these kids," he said.

"I'm so tired of hearing that African American kids aren't interested in baseball. Nothing could be further from the truth."

These 16 Monarchs are excellent ballplayers, every bit as good as any suburban travel team. They play in tournaments and leagues across the region, but they are always the only African American team.

"These kids have shown what happens when you give them the opportunity," Bandura said.

Mayor League Baseball is starting urban youth initiatives, Bandura said. MLB and the City of Philadelphia, he said, will be pouring $2 million into revamping the Anderson center, at 17th and Catharine Streets.

Bandura said he believes this team in particular is a model, a poster child, for what urban baseball can become. Given discipline, expectations, and instruction, and a chance to play several times a week, city youths can thrive and succeed and love the game. And success extends far beyond sport.

The trip started Friday.

Mo'ne Davis, the lone girl, stuck her head out the bus window moments before it was to leave South Philadelphia.

"Mom, I think my 42 jersey is in the car." (Everyone was to pack a Robinson jersey.)

"It's in your bag," said her mother, Lakeisha McLean.

Yolanda Eaddy, mother of Myles Eaddy, packed 19 individual Ziploc bags for her son, with clean underwear, socks, and instructions about which uniform to wear that day in each bag.

Leslie McNeil Cerf's parting words to her son, Cole McNeil, the sole Caucasian on the Monarchs, were, "Write in your journal." He groaned.

Before the bus pulled out, Bandura saw two players poking one another in their seats. He was calm but firm. "Nobody touches anybody else," he said. "I see it, you're on the bench. You won't play. That's how I'll handle discipline."

They were perfect all the way to Secaucus, N.J., the first stop, home of the MLB Network.

Before going inside, Bandura gave them another quick talk: "This is huge. The impression you make here is huge. 'Please' and 'Thank you' and a firm handshake and look in their eyes. . . . Just because somebody treats you like a king doesn't mean you are a king. They're just being polite and nice. You need to be on your best behavior."

They all put Robinson jerseys on, and in they went. It seemed like a dream. They walked into studios of shows they all watch, sat in chairs of anchors they all know. Myles, not realizing anyone was listening, went into play-by-play mode: "And the Mets is on fire last night. And let's take you to the bullpen."

They were more excited here than they would be the next day seeing Yankee Stadium. Of course, it was air-conditioned.

Studio 42, named to honor Robinson, is a replica baseball field, featuring a half-scale turf infield with a pitcher's mound, bases, dugouts, and bleachers. The kids pretended to bat and pitch and released some energy by running the bases and exploring every inch. Then their coach did an interview and they joined him before the nation.

Anchor Lauren Shehadi asked Jahli Hendricks, "If you could ask Jackie Robinson one question, what would it be?" Jahli replied, "How did he handle all the harassment and nasty remarks and still play great baseball?"

Cars and trucks on the road kept honking at the Monarchs' vintage bus. And the MLB Network personalities were no less impressed. Several came out from the cool studios into the oppressive heat to climb aboard.

"I have a cool job," anchor Greg Amsinger told the kids. "But I'm jealous."

 


Watch videos of the barnstorming Monarchs

baseball team at www.philly.com/monarchs

Also, view photo galleries and follow the series as The Inquirer travels with the 10- and 11-year-olds on part of their 22-day road trip.


Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez