Nekhi Gilbert, 12, clapped and shouted from the home team dugout at Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast. The competitors were ahead, but Nekhi and his teammates were not about to give up.
The Saturday game was an exhibition between Nekhi’s D.C. team and one from Pittsburgh. Despite the heat, which reached 90 degrees before noon, and the tough competition, coaches and parents reminded the kids to stay positive and respectful.
Nekhi tried his best.
“Hey, little bro,” he shouted to the next batter. “Don’t swing at everything!”
And a few minutes later, when his teammate hit a single, “There you go, little bro!”
The 9- to 12-year-olds played three innings, just under two hours, and ended with a final score of 9-1, Pittsburgh. But winning wasn’t why they were there.
In anticipation of next year’s 100th anniversary of the Negro leagues, the kids were brought together to learn about African American history and culture, especially its role in baseball. And, of course, to play some ball.
The exchange program between the D.C. Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh aims to give the kids a chance to explore both places. It was inspired by the Homestead Grays, a Negro league team that united the cities from the late 1930s through the 1940s.
The Homestead Grays split their home games between D.C. and Pittsburgh, referring to themselves as the Washington Grays when they played in the District. One of the team’s most famous players, Josh Gibson, known as “the black Babe Ruth,” became the second Negro league player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Nekhi Gilbert, 12, of Washington, watches his team play against a Pittsburgh team at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post) Sean Gibson, great-grandson of legendary Homestead Grays player Josh Gibson, congratulates his players after their victory. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post) Sean Gibson now runs the Pittsburgh-based Josh Gibson Foundation in honor of his great-grandfather and helped organize the exchange.
“The most important part of the weekend is for the kids to learn the history of the Negro league and to understand that there was one time when black players could not play with white players,” Gibson said.
The weekend comes as Major League Baseball is seeing a significant decline in African American players. According to data from USA Today , only 7.7 percent of MLB players this season are African American, with 11 teams having only one black player.
MLB does have a significant Latin representation, Gibson said, and it might be easy for kids to see Latin players and think they’re represented because of the color of their skin.
That’s why Gibson said it’s important to continue programs like this exchange and others put on by his organization and MLB to bring more African American kids to baseball.
Decked out in “GRAYS” T-shirts, the Pittsburgh players arrived on Friday morning and met up with the D.C. players to see Washington. They toured the Howard University campus. They walked through the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
For D.C. players Nekhi and Mikal Davis, 11, one of the most important parts of their experience was a visit to the museum, where they were struck by exhibits on racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Both can now cite stats they learned about how many black people are arrested and incarcerated in the United States.
Semaj Rattliff, 12, of Pittsburgh, said he’ll remember how much he learned about the history of racism and slavery in the United States .
For Dremir Watson, 10, of Pittsburgh, the best part was seeing the mural at Ben’s Chili Bowl, which featured Josh Gibson and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, the first female pitcher to play in the Negro leagues.
Most of these young players see baseball as more than a game.
This is Dremir’s first year playing baseball, and his mom, Pamela Watson, said he immediately fell in love with it. It’s the first time in the last 10 or 15 years that baseball has returned to their neighborhood, she said.
“It’s nice to see baseball back in these inner cities,” Watson said.
A Pittsburgh player takes a drink during Saturday’s game. By noon, the temperature reached 90 degrees, and the three-inning game went for nearly two hours. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post) Nekhi has been playing baseball for the past four years. He also plays basketball and hopes to make it big playing football one day. For his mom, Nakeda Gilbert, playing sports is a way to help give kids structure. She volunteers for the Benning Terrace league, where most of the D.C. kids in Saturday’s game play.
“I really think it’s important to take part in sports at an early age to keep them off the streets,” Gilbert said.
This time next year, the same players will visit Pittsburgh to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Negro leagues baseball and participate in a larger tournament with other housing authority teams.
Once Saturday’s game ended, the teams passed home plate and exchanged gifts, congratulating each other with a “good game.”
Pittsburgh players brought Josh Gibson bobbleheads for their new friends, while the D.C. players handed out Washington Nationals hats.
Coaches called for a picture of the teams together, and despite the groans about the heat, the players lined up near home plate, joking and messing with each other’s hats.
“You guys are making this longer,” Sean Gibson said.
The players, sporting white and gray uniforms reminiscent of those worn by the Homestead team, finally smiled.
Before they left, each player also got a copy of “Separate and Unequaled” a booklet made by the Anacostia Community Museum about the history of black baseball.
Gibson brought his grandson, Sean Foullah, with him for the weekend. After the game, the two posed in front of a picture of Gibson’s great-grandfather that the academy, located on Ely Place, has on its wall.
“These kids have these opportunities because of others’ sacrifice,” Gibson said. “We want them to understand what they went through just so these kids could play baseball with another race.”
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