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It started with a commercial. Chicago Bulls games were an inescapable part of Langston Speed’s childhood, and while watching a television broadcast of his favorite basketball team at age 3, an ad for the Chicago White Sox’s summer camp aired. Speed was transfixed—by the players, by the leaping defensive catches in the outfield, by the home runs. Everything about this unfamiliar sport intrigued him, so he started watching baseball games, even as basketball dominated the conversations in the Speed household.
“I wouldn’t understand it but I would always watch it and I would always want to play,” says Speed, now 12.
But living in Southeast, D.C. meant there weren’t many opportunities to play baseball. Fields were scarce and young kids in the city lean toward football and basketball. Instead of picking up a bat and glove, Speed dabbled in basketball, took karate lessons, and participated in the Fort Dupont Ice Arena’s “Kids on Ice” program.
Baseball would have to wait.
“It’s all [about] exposure,” says Speed’s father, Carlos, a Chicago native. “The reason why the African-American community gravitates to basketball and football is because there are basketball courts all over city and football fields at school. You don’t have any baseball fields.”
On a cloudy Friday evening at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in late July, Speed slides feet first into home plate as Curtis Banks, one of his coaches, calls him safe.
“Nah, he was out!” shouts 12-year-old Rocco Gilbert from shortstop. “Man, he was out.”
Speed doesn’t engage in the debate and calmly walks to the dugout, knowing he did his part.
This encounter unfolds at Speed and his teammates’ first practice since the Mamie Johnson Little League 12-and-under all-star team made history at the D.C. Little League championships a few days earlier. There, the team became the first predominantly African-American team to win the title.
Starting in 1986, teams from the District were able to earn a chance to advance through the Maryland State tournament in District 3. According to Little League, 1998 was the first year that D.C. sent a direct representative to regionals through its tournament.
The team, named after Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, the first female pitcher in the Negro Leagues, who died last year at 82, beat Capitol Hill Little League, 14-7, to advance to play in the Little League Mid-Atlantic Region tournament, taking place in Bristol, Connecticut, from August 5 to August 11. A pregame send-off ceremony for Mamie Johnson Little League will be held at Nationals Park before the team leaves.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Keith Barnes, president and founder of the team. “I mean it’s been just amazing, just the support from the community has been awesome.”
The 46-year-old from Richmond, Virginia’s North Side played on an all-black Little League team at Battery Park near his hometown and also competed for Virginia State University. He keeps an old photo of him and his teammates from the Battery Park Vikings on his phone, which he proudly shares.
“It meant the world to me,” Barnes says of playing in youth baseball. “Some of us have become lifelong friends.”
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Barnes started Mamie Johnson Little League in the spring of 2015. He wanted to bring competitive baseball to kids living in Ward 7. Since launching, the team has partnered with the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, an 18,000-square-foot education and baseball facility that opened in 2014. It uses the academy’s facilities for practices and games, and several of the players on the team, like Speed, only started playing the sport shortly after the academy was completed.
“That was not a coincidence,” says Tal Alter, the academy’s executive director. “This was a strategic opportunity that Keith saw and we partnered with him from Day 1. The majority of the boys in league are attending programs at the academy throughout the year.”
“These opportunities are plenty in our city but not in certain parts of it,” he continues, “and those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American.”
According to research by Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt from the Society of American Baseball Research, African-Americans made up about 7 percent of Major League Baseball players in 2016, down from the peak of approximately 18 percent from the mid-1970s to the late ’80s.
This is not surprising to the those involved in Mamie Johnson Little League. Whenever the team travels, the players notice that very few of their opponents look like them.
Once while out for lunch with the team, 12-year-old Joshua Young, an outfielder for Mamie Johnson, says a waitress asked him if he played basketball or football.
“No,” Young replied. “I play baseball.”
Because of the racial makeup of the team and the fact that it only started four seasons ago, coaches, parents, and players believe that the group is overlooked on the field. Opposing teams would sometimes play their worst pitcher, says 14-year-old Amir Makle, who was a member of last year’s 12-and-under all-star team that made the District’s championship game.
Makle, whose younger brother, Ian, is on this year’s team, started playing organized baseball when he was 8. He competed for Northwest Washington Little League before Mamie Johnson and is blunt about why he thinks people sometimes underestimate them.
“Cause we’re a bunch of black kids playing baseball,” Makle says.
Head coach Raphael Lockett understands what other coaches may see. His team can be sloppy at times. Mamie Johnson went 1-3 and allowed 31 runs in the round robin stage before upsetting top-seeded Capitol City Little League in the semifinals.
But he agrees that the team’s racial makeup largely drives outside doubts. “When the lights come on, these kids are competitors, and they’re ready to play,” says Lockett, a 35-year-old former Division 1 baseball player at Mississippi’s Jackson State University.
During practice, Speed’s father, Carlos, and Jeris Taylor, whose son Dejuan is also on the team, watch from behind the cage in the dugout as rain begins to fall. Neither parent played baseball growing up and their kids have made them appreciate the sport.
“To be quite honest, aside from practices and the games, it still took me a long time to get into it as a fan,” Carlos says. “Just me sitting and watching his games and practices has helped me understand the game at a much deeper level.”
When Speed first started playing baseball four years ago, he was confused by how few black kids were on the teams. He didn’t really know how to feel. But after winning the D.C. championship with his teammates, almost all of whom are African-American, Speed understands the significance, and what their presence means for the sport he loves.
“I have a little more pride in myself,” he says at the end of the two-hour practice. “It gives me a reason to want to play. It gives me a reason to help the sport by playing and participating as where I’m from and my skin color.”