Baseball and Belonging: The Anderson Monarchs
As the rising costs of travel ball gentrify the sport, one Little League team in Philadelphia keeps alive a tradition of inner city baseball
He’d been told for years that he was working on sacred ground. The old folks in the neighborhood would stop him when he was raking the infield or mowing the outfield grass or chalking the baselines. On this very corner, they told him, there used to be baseball games every Sunday. McCoach Playground they called it back then, and from spring to fall you could stand on the corner of 17th and Fitzwater and see people stacked 10 to 15 deep — men in suits and porkpie hats, women in dresses and pillboxes, everyone looking as if they’d just arrived from church. All of them wedged in between the rowhouses and narrow streets to watch a Sunday afternoon baseball game between all-black teams made up of employees from local factories.
Steve Bandura liked this idea that his work was linked to the past, that somehow benevolent, baseball-loving ghosts were pushing him forward as he prepped the field and coached the neighborhood kids, many of whom descended from those well-dressed spectators. He first heard the lore when he showed up at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center, some 30 years ago, when an old man leaned on the cyclone fence and told him a story. He was one of those long-ago players, the old man said, and one Sunday the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro Leagues signed him to a contract, right on that field, not far at all from the very spot where the two men stood having this conversation.
Bandura had a difficult time squaring those stories with his current reality. Youth baseball had pretty much abandoned African American communities throughout the country, including in Philadelphia. It fled to the suburbs, where it transformed itself from a healthy, competitive extracurricular activity into a structured business where coaches sell dreams to parents who purchase them and inflict them on kids who feel pressure to achieve them.
The evidence is stark. In 2018, according to The Aspen Institute, only 38% of kids aged 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis — down from 45% a decade earlier. Their rationale? Cost. Little League and rec league — now pejoratives — ceded ground to travel ball, somehow bigger and better because it was decorated with words like elite and select and carried chimerical promises of exposure and scholarships and pro careers.
Travel ball and the $600 weekend showcases that come with it sell exposure to college coaches and pro scouts, who sit in the stands and complain about the way youth baseball has slapped a bar code on every kid with a dream. (They can’t stay away, though, because they won’t all stay away.) Those price tags — often surpassing $5,000 a summer for tournament fees, travel expenses and instruction — redlines the less privileged out of the game. “None of our families could afford to do that,” Bandura says. “None.”
As travel ball gentrified the game, local leagues disappeared, and inner-city public high schools struggled to field teams. The percentage of African American players on major league rosters nosedived, dropping from a peak of 18.7% in 1981 to just 7.7% on Opening Day 2019. College baseball is even less diverse; 80 percent are white and just 6 percent – including HBCUs – are black, according to the NCAA Demographics Database.
Tall, lean and idealistic, Bandura started working at Anderson more than 30 years ago, first as a young volunteer who felt unfulfilled by a marketing job in downtown Philadelphia, eventually advancing to the position he holds now: the center’s program director and baseball, basketball and soccer coach. “In the beginning, I set out to save the world,” he says. His mission extends beyond sports. In 1997, for the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut, Bandura, now 58, raised money to take his Anderson Monarchs teams on a civil rights barnstorming tour. He has done it three more times since, driving an authentic 1947 bus (no air conditioning) and prohibiting all electronics in an attempt to replicate the conditions of the Negro Leagues.
“Our son chose specifically to play at an HBCU,” says Keith Hendricks, whose son Jahli played 10 years for the Monarchs and is now a freshman second baseman at Southern University. “I think that is connected to the Monarch mission of identity, and understanding who you are in this big world.”
That mission is at the core of everything Bandura does. At what he has dubbed Anderson Yards, there are 29 4-foot-by-4-foot signs hanging from baseline to baseline. Each one bears the name, alma mater and major of a former Monarch who played on the field for a minimum of five years and went on to earn a college degree. Below them are seven smaller signs for those who have earned advanced degrees. More will join in the next few years: The oldest members of his most successful team, featuring household name Mo’ne Davis, left for college this fall. A remarkable nine players from the 2019 and 2020 graduating classes will play Division I baseball, and Davis is playing D1 softball at Hampton. Three others will play Division III baseball. “Everyone who wanted to play college ball is [playing],” Bandura says. It is a list that would make even the most exclusive, elite and expensive travel-ball team envious.
Bandura backs away from credit as if it’s a snarling dog, and he’s uneasy with any suggestion that he’s a white man riding to the rescue. “I’m uncomfortable with that,” he says. “That’s not what this story is about.” His wife, Robin, is black, and their son Scott, who has played baseball, basketball and soccer for his dad since he was 5, recently signed to play baseball at Princeton. “My dad was the only white guy in the neighborhood when he started here,” Scott says. “He had to build his credibility with the families, and what sets him apart is his empathy.” On a tour of the rec center, Steve points to an old team photo hanging in the hallway outside his office. At 6-foot-4, he towers over the smiling players, most of whom are in third or fourth grade. His hair is parted down the middle and feathered over his ears. “Hey,” he says to preempt what he thinks is coming. “Everyone wore their hair like that back then.”
When Major League Baseball put together a diversity committee in 2013 to address the issue of African American participation, Bandura submitted a lengthy proposal based on his experience with the Monarchs. “We developed the blueprint for this,” he says. He never heard back and sarcastically says he expects the committee’s final report “any day now.” He scoffs at the tired cultural excuses offered up as reasons black kids don’t play baseball — the slowness of the game compared to basketball and football, the lack of glamour at the college level, the long road through the minor leagues — and considers them a form of victim-blaming.
“Why do black kids in the suburbs play baseball?” he asks. “Does their DNA change when they change ZIP codes? I feel like they’re ignoring the greatest pool of talent in this country — in the world — right here in our inner cities. And without the right people and the right structure, it’ll never get developed.”
When he founded the Monarchs, Bandura’s first task was to revive baseball in a place where it had been forgotten for at least a generation, often two. Fathers might have shot hoops or thrown a football with their sons, but not many were playing catch. The task was to do it cheaply, locally and passionately. He kept the stories of the old days at 17th and Fitzwater as motivation, but the work of the present was always more important than sentiment.
And then one day last year he opened an email that contained a scanned photo from 1920 that brought the stories to life. There it was, blurry, faded and real: a huge crowd circling the entire field, maybe 20 deep, watching two teams in factory-league uniforms play a game on a ragged field not more than 50 feet from where he sat.
“It was Job 1 to reconnect the kids and their families in this neighborhood to that rich baseball history,” Bandura says. “I think some of those old-timers would be proud of what’s going on here.”
The ground lay quiet for too many years, and when the Monarchs came to be, it began to speak. This photo, motivating but a bit haunting, with all those well-dressed people linking him and these kids to a dignified past, validated the countless hours Bandura had spent on the field.
It also served another purpose. It allowed him to tell people he didn’t start anything in this patch of grass; he simply brought it back.
On a humid Tuesday evening in September, Bandura is getting ready to run his 10- and 11-year-old team through a practice. This fall they’re moving up to 70-foot bases, which means Bandura will be teaching the boring stuff — leadoffs, pickoffs, steals — to a bunch of kids dying to release energy pent up by a day in school.
“Wish me luck,” he says.
The kids, all wearing identical Monarchs practice gear, bounce from base to base, taking a knee and listening intently as Bandura runs down the eccentricities intrinsic to each spot. The footwork necessary to get back to first on a pickoff attempt, the secondary lead at second base, the importance of following the path of the pitch to read a ball in the dirt — he runs through it all, with exaggerated vigor, and the kids follow along as if promised a prize at the end. The names of all those college graduates follow them around the bases, like eyes on a painting.
The parents walk around the field for exercise or talk in small groups down the left-field line. I’m watching with Rob Badgett, a volunteer coach whose two sons play for the Monarchs. As the group moves dutifully from second to third, he says, “I don’t want you to think this is a show. This is how they are. Parents from opposing teams come up to us and ask, ‘How do you get them to be so attentive?’ Well, this is where they want to be, and these kids were here from the time they were 5 years old.”
Bandura hears it all the time: Coach, your kids are so well-behaved. Parents from those fancy suburban travel teams seek him out at tournaments, dying to tell him they’ve noticed how nicely his players pay attention and behave themselves, believing it’s a compliment.
“Why would you think that unless you were expecting something completely opposite of that?” Bandura asks. “Did you tell the white team from around the corner that they’re well-behaved? I don’t think so. People have preconceived notions, and the only way to reverse that is to get to know people who are different, to be immersed in something other than the little bubble you grew up in. If a rabbit stays in the hole and looks up, the sky’s only this big. But if he pops his head out” — here Bandura spreads his arms wide, to encompass the entire width and breadth of the sky. “A lot of people don’t want to pop their heads out of that hole.”
The Marian Anderson Rec Center seems like the perfect place for all the well-documented ills of youth sports to die. Exorbitant costs? The Monarchs play a handful of tournaments a year and focus on attending local college camps that players have identified as possible destinations. “If we want to go to a big tournament out of town, it costs us $3,000,” Bandura says. “But if we stay home and schedule a doubleheader Saturday and a doubleheader Sunday, it costs me $100 in umpire fees for the whole weekend.” Specialization? Every one of those 11 Division I scholarship players, including Davis, played soccer, basketball and baseball through high school. “Playing different sports allowed me to see the game differently,” Davis says. “Soccer allowed me to really see the field and think about the next play because it’s such a fast-paced game — same with basketball. And then baseball has allowed me to stay mentally tough.” Selfishness? In an age when travel ball rosters change every year — and sometimes every weekend — the Monarchs’ under-17 team from last year had stayed together for 10 years. Seven of them, most notably Davis, played for the Taney Dragons in the 2014 Little League World Series.
“The way travel baseball has evolved, it’s become more about the individual kid,” says Ryan Wheeler, associate head coach at Saint Joseph’s University. “They’re all trying to self-promote to move on to the next level. With Steve’s team, it’s about the team. It’s about being a part of something bigger than them individually. They are all pulling for each other. That was just something very unique in this day and age.”
The Monarchs’ U17 team played its last game together at the Saint Joseph’s team camp in July. They looked like no other team in the field — figuratively and literally. They picked three runners off second base. Their catchers called their own games. They sat in the dugout and talked about the outfielders’ arms and the pitchers’ delivery times to the plate. The tournament ended with Mo’ne on the mound, and she recorded the last out by strikeout, getting a left-handed hitter to swing through an 80 mph cutter with arm-side run. By the middle of the game, the Monarchs’ dugout was filled with practically every college coach in attendance.
“They’re unique,” Wheeler says. “They just had a real joy to play the game. They were fun to be around.”
After the final game, the Monarchs had a cookout to celebrate the end of their run. In the next few weeks, four of them would move on to college. Keith and Monique Hendricks were standing on a field where their son played soccer for the Monarchs, and a question about the bond among the Monarchs families causes Monique to cry. She looks skyward before composing herself.
“I knew that was going to get me,” she says. “It wasn’t [Jahli] going to Southern that was the difficult thing for us. The difficult thing was him not playing for the Monarchs anymore. That was the moment that was heart-wrenching.”
Before his parents left Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to drive back to Philadelphia, Jahli hung his Monarchs poster, the one his mother made for the whole team, above his bed in his dorm room. That same weekend, Davis was hanging the same poster over her bed at Hampton, 1,100 miles away.
The neighborhood started changing about a decade ago. The rowhouses Bandura remembers being under $50,000 are now selling for close to $1 million. UppaBaby strollers are parked outside the playground between the indoor batting cage and the left-field fence, and wealthy white parents take business calls while their kids go down the slide. Contractors’ trucks are shoehorned into the few parking spots on the streets surrounding the rec center, and table saws and power drills provide the daytime soundtrack. Fewer people with links to the past stop at the cyclone fence to watch baseball.
“Now it’s an upper-middle-class to upper-class white neighborhood,” Bandura says. “For the most part, we’ve been able to serve the same demographic, but it’s been harder. Our program is designed to help kids that don’t have those opportunities.”
Every spring the Monarchs hold an Opening Day ceremony. The highlight is the unveiling of the new signs honoring alumni who graduated from college in the previous year. The signs are hung on the inside of the fences, with the names visible only to those on the field. With the 29 full-sized signs and those seven smaller ones, Bandura is running out of space, and as he drags the infield on his tractor, he sometimes plots out where and how he will fit the signs for future graduates. There are so many on the way, and he’s starting to think the only solution is more fence.
“It’s an ever-present reminder of why we’re here,” says Keith Hendricks. “We [he and Monique] are first-generation college graduates, and so the goal has always been that our children go beyond where we have gone.”
(That’ll be up to Jahli: He was 9 or 10 when he told his parents, “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to have two plaques because a graduate degree means I won’t be playing baseball.”)
One day this summer, a newcomer in the neighborhood asked Bandura about the signs. Bandura told him about the Monarchs, and the college graduates, and the guy was suitably impressed. He told Bandura what people always tell Bandura — “You’re doing great things for those kids” — but then he thought for a second and said, “You really should turn those signs around. Let people on the outside know what you’re doing.”
The suggestion struck Bandura as a perfect example of what has happened to the neighborhood, and — by extension — to youth baseball. This guy, with the best intentions, was telling Bandura he should market his program to the outside world — as if the location of the signs was an accident, or merely an oversight.
Bandura gave some thought to his response. He couldn’t say that it doesn’t matter whether a guy walking his designer dog from the corner coffeehouse to his million-dollar row house knows that Ali Mapp has two degrees from Temple. He looked out on the field where a group of 10-year-olds was practicing under the watchful eye of those signs.
“This isn’t for the people on the outside,” Bandura said, gesturing toward the field. “The people on the inside are the ones that matter.”
Additional reporting by Lois Nam.