Braves First 44 Classic Brings Out Top Black Talent

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Team photo following first 44 Classic hosted by Atlanta Braves to honor Hank Aaron as they find ways to increase Black ball players in the major leagues. Photo Credits ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

When the Atlanta Braves hosted the Baltimore Orioles today during a week long tribute to Henry Aaron, presented by Delta Airlines, they placed a team on the field with only one Black American on their 25 man roster.He is left-handed pitcher Sam Freeman.

Freeman was born in Houston, Texas in 1987.

Contrast this with the Braves in 1974, the year that Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record by blasting his 715th homer early in that season. The Braves had a total of 7 Blacks on its 25 man roster.

A few years after Sam Freeman was born the number of Blacks playing baseball in America drastically declined. Their numbers in major league baseball declined.

To combat the decline of Black Americans in professional baseball, Major League Baseball established a program in 1991 geared to Reviving Baseball in the Inner cities (RBI).

Initially the Atlanta RBI program was run out of the City of Atlanta Parks and Recreation Department under the supervision of Bernard Patillo. He brought on Eugene Gardner in 1991 and charged him with putting together a baseball program that would give teenage boys in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh community a recreational outlet.

Gardner ran the RBI program until 2007 out of his pocket and the equipment that he could get from the City of Atlanta. He created a strong relationship with the kids and inspired many of his players to seek a college education. Most of his kids were the first members of their family to attend college.

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A group of former Atlanta Braves helping out at the first 44 Classic.Photo Credit ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

After the 2007 season, Gardner’s work took him to San Francisco. He passed on the old Atlanta Pirates Youth League team to John Hollins, a former college pitcher and an advertising account executive for an Atlanta television station.

In the decade since taking over the Atlanta RBI, Hollins has formed a relationship with former professional baseball players who live in the Metro Atlanta area like Marquis Grissom, Dwight Smith and Lenny Webster; along with cultivating a relationship with the Atlanta Braves. Additionally, he has incorporated the program as ATL METRO RBI, Inc.

Also, Hollins has maintained Garner’s emphasis on education as the program continues to send almost100 percent of its kids to college on academic and athletic scholarships.

This year ATL METRO RBI had five players drafted in the June Major League Baseball Draft. Those five young men were coached by Marquis Grissom. In 2010 Grissom had four of his players to ink professional contracts.

“What’s the secret Grissom sauce?” we asked.

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Former Braves First Baseman Chris Chambliss coaching in the first 44 Classic.Photo Credit ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

“We are finally getting through to the players and the parents that if this is something the player wants to do they both have to commit to doing it. We teach a little baseball, but beyond that we teach them to get their education and if they catch the eye of a scout all well and good. For me, it’s all about family, love, books and then baseball. If we can get a kid to understand the importance of these values, we can help them be successful,” the former Braves outfielder said.

When the Atlanta Braves decided to host the first ever 44 Classic to honor the legacy of Hank Aaron the most prolific home run hitter in the pre-steroid era,who wore jersey number 44, they teamed with ATL METRO RBI to help them identify the top 44 African American high school baseball players.

“We wanted to showcase the top 44 African American baseball players in the Atlanta area to give them exposure before college coaches and professional scouts,” said Jarrod Simmons, Senior Coordinator Community Affairs for the Atlanta Braves.

“We had about six professional scouts and about 10 HBCU college coaches and a coach from Georgia State here during yesterday’s showcase,” Simmons added.

The first day of the showcase at Kennesaw State University consisted of a three hour pro style workout. After this workout the baseball hopefuls showered and boarded a Fox Sports Bus to Sun Trust Park where they met Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones. Most of the youngsters related to the more contemporary Chipper Jones, but thought that Aaron was kind of old.

“How old is Hank Aaron,” one player asked another player in the dugout the next day.

“I think he is about 84. He had a hard time gripping the ball,” said another player.

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Emperor Williams pitched one-third of an inning in the first 44 Classic. He did not give up any hits or runs. Photo Credits ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

However, Emperor Williams a six-foot three inch right hander who signed a full scholarship to pitch for the Tuskegee University Golden Tigers next year said, “Mr. Aaron asked us what did we want to do. He said that we had to make up our minds that we wanted to play baseball. Then he had to go talk on television during the game.”

Earlier in the day, Aaron stirred a bit of controversy during his annual Hank Aaron Champions for Justice Awards program. The awards are given to people who have worked for better social, human and civil rights. This year’s recipients were NBC Sportscaster Bob Costas, former Attorney General Eric Holder and Mayor of San Juan Puerto Rico Carmen Yulin Cruz.

During the ceremony Aaron made it clear if he was on a championship team, he would not visit the White House. Aaron said, “There is no one there I want to see.”

Following Aaron’s visit the players watched the Orioles defeat the Braves 10–7. Sam Freeman pitched one-third of an inning giving up 3 runs on 2 hits. Adam Jones, the Orioles lone Black American player went 1–5 at the bat.

On the next day, two 22 member teams squared off in a seven inning baseball game. In the dugout to give out golden nuggets of baseball wisdom were Chris Chambliss, Gerald Perry, Dwight Smith, Grissom and Marvin Freeman.

The scoreboard was not what was important. After each pitch, each swing, each ground or fly ball was instant feedback shared in love prodding the youngsters to improve their game.

For instance, before the game Emperor Williams had been told he would pitch the last inning. So when the pitcher on his team took the mound in the sixth inning, Williams sauntered down to the bullpen to get warmed up. He figured he had a whole inning to get ready.

But coach Grissom had different plans. He wanted to see what Williams could do coming into the game with two outs. Before Williams could work up a sweat the call came to the bullpen.

The next thing Williams knew he was facing a batter with a runner on base and two outs. His first pitch hit the batter in the seat of the pants. Now he had two men on base.

He can’t find the strike zone and walks the next batter. His college coach Reggie Hollins is in the stands with his note book. The third batter up grounds out to the second baseman, inning over without a run scored.

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Marvin Freeman talking pitching with a young catching prospect during first 44 Classic. Photo Credit ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

When Williams walks into the dugout feeling like he did not do his best, Marvin Freeman walks over and ask, “You loose now?”

“Yes,” Williams replied.

Then Freeman drops a pearl of wisdom that young players would not learn about the intricate nuances of the game of baseball unless they were around professionals of the caliber of Freeman and the other men in the dugout.

“When you get up in the bullpen you have to get your arm loose right away, cut loose on your first 10 throws. Now you ready, then you can go to the mound and work on your pitches. You have to get ready first because you never know when the game is going south. When you get your arm ready as soon as you get up no matter what happens you are ready to go,” Freeman taught.

The lights came back on in Williams eyes. He had just learned a valuable lesson.

Following the inaugural 44 Classic, the young players showered and boarded a bus back to Sun Trust Park where they attended a panel discussion on the business of baseball and they capped off the day by being introduced before the Orioles-Braves game. They were entertained after the game in a concert featuring Big Boi.

Long live the legacy of Hank Aaron, the 44 Classic and Black Americans playing major league baseball.

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com

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Harvey is Living Now Book Awards 2020 Bronze Medalist for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. Available at haroldmichaelharvey.com

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