Renell Johnson of Baltimore’s Johnston Square neighborhood got up one Saturday in April, put on a new uniform and smacked a fist into a ready glove. Later, on the field, carefully raised a bat and stared down a young pitcher for the first time in his 11 years.
It was a familiar call for most kids, who had at the first sign of spring rescued bats and gloves from the dark corners of closets, sheds and garages, and headed outdoors for months of baseball league play and backyard pick up games. But for scores of boys and girls in the city’s poor neighborhoods, it was a rallying cry heard for the first time.
Renell is in the fifth grade and attends Madison Square Elementary, at 1401 East Biddle at Caroline Street. He is a charter member of the Baltimore Baseball League, an program operated by the Parks & People Foundation with the participation of the Junior League of Baltimore, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Baltimore City Public Schools. Funding for the program was provided by the Abell Foundation, the Junior League of Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles, and Major League Baseball. The program is about much more than baseball.
The Baltimore Baseball League logo features a baseball resting on an open book and a pencil–the pencil is in the picture as a symbol of the academic component of the program. Between games and practices, each player is required to maintain satisfactory grades and attendance or risk forfeiting play. By playoff time 90 percent of the initial team members were still “playing ball.” Renell knew that if his grades or attendance went down, he might not be competing in the playoffs and that his coach was concerned about how he was doing in school. The League provided, daily, a wholesome, challenging activity for 10- and 11-year-olds in many neighborhoods, from elementary schools with no other after-school programs for their students.
From mid-April through the end of June, 24 each of the elementary schools in Baltimore City fielded a team of 20 fourth and fifth graders. Coordinator Keith Leacock, of the Parks and People Foundation, conducted a lottery at each school so all interested students had a chance to play. Junior League volunteers became school liaisons to help monitor the players’ attendance and grades. Department of Recreation and Parks staff trained coaches and umpires and prepared the fields. The kids did the rest.
Three days a week after school they practiced with their coaches and every Saturday competed against nearby schools at their local recreation center. The games not only were a big event for the kids but for their families and neighbors as well. At the comer of Madison and Caroline Streets, where Renell and his schoolmates played every Saturday, the stands were full of enthusiastic family and friends cheering for the young players, most of whom had never worn a glove or picked up a bat before.
Fans could be heard shouting, “That’s my nephew playing first base,” and “My son is pitching great today…” They were quick with fans’ advice, “Steady now, don’t swing at everything…” and, “Keep going, son,” and “Run, baby, Run!” to that runner rounding third.
This past summer in Baltimore, the Baltimore Baseball League provided exciting Saturdays of baseball, rain delays, game-saving catches in the ninth, and a championship series attended by Baltimore Oriole Sam Horn. Glenn Davis treated 450 student athletes and their coaches to a night at Oriole Park, a first Big League game for almost everyone.
Thanks to the creation of the Baltimore Baseball League, hundreds of Baltimore City Public School youngsters had special motivation to maintain good grades and attendance, while representing their school in organized league play. Next year the program will double to 48 teams with a total of 960 players.
The Abell Foundation salutes Baltimore Baseball League and all who helped to make it work– keeping averages up in the classroom as well as on the field.