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The importance of the predominantly black Mamie Johnson team at the Little League World Series

Before they attempt to make history, the players and coaches are trying to be agents of change at home

On July 24, the Mamie Johnson Little League (MJLL) team based in Washington, D.C., defeated the Capitol Hill squad to win the District’s Little League championship. This wouldn’t be major news in any other year since the District champion has never advanced to the Little League World Series. But MJLL is different from all those other teams from the nation’s capital.

They may be the first predominantly black team to win the D.C. championship in the tournament’s 31-year history.

Now the group of 11- to 12-year-olds will head to Bristol, Connecticut, this weekend to compete in the Mid-Atlantic Regional for a chance to advance to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Before they attempt to make history by earning a spot at Howard J. Lamade Stadium, the players and their coaches are trying to be agents of change at home.

It starts with the team’s head coach, Raphael Lockett, who is in his third year with MJLL, which is named after Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, the first female pitcher in the Negro Leagues. The 35-year-old grew up with baseball. He played Division I baseball at historically black Jackson State in the early 2000s and has multiple cousins who played in the majors, including outfielders Ced Landrum and Tito Landrum. Another cousin, Chris Landrum, plays in the NFL for the Los Angeles Chargers.

Langston Speed of MJLL pitches during a scrimmage against a team from Mexico at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1. The team is preparing to compete in the upcoming Little League Mid-Atlantic Regional tournament in Bristol, Connecticut. They’re the first predominantly black little league team to make it to the regional tournament in more than 30 years.

Cheriss May for The Undefeated

But like most of the rest of the country, Lockett has noticed how football and basketball have decimated turnout in baseball over the past few decades. During the 1986 MLB season, black players made up 19 percent of active rosters, the highest in major league history. In 2017, the number dwindled to 7.8 percent.

Lockett longs for the days of Ernie Banks, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds, not conceding that the days of the black baseball star are over.

“I feel like it’s our duty to get baseball back to that legacy and that standard,” Lockett said. “It’s always been our game, we’ve always been capable, and this team right here signifies it.”

The MJLL players, not even teenagers yet, understand the magnitude of their win against Capitol Hill. But they also want to make clear that you will not place limits on these black kids.

“Normally, they think that African-Americans normally play football or basketball,” said 12-year-old Rocco Gilbert, who has played with MJLL since its inception in 2015. “It was good to let them know that we’re also good at baseball.”

Gilbert’s teammate Langston Speed (he said he’s heard all of the puns about his last name) also recognizes that people who look like him rarely play baseball, but he hopes MJLL’s run can help change that narrative.

Rocco Gilbert, 12, of the Mamie Johnson Little League team sits in the dugout during team practice. Gilbert has played with MJLL since its inception in 2015.

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“I know in baseball, in this area in particular, black kids do not play baseball. So at the time, when we won, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Speed said. “But then when we started to be in the news and when they started to break it down and why it was important, I started to realize, Oh, wait, we made history. And we need more black kids playing baseball. I feel good because I helped contribute to that.”

And while some reports have deemed MJLL the first “all-black” team to win the District title, that’s not entirely true. The team actually has one white player on its roster of 12, although assistant coach Curtis Banks said the team sometimes forgets the player, Stephen Showalter, isn’t black. After all, Showalter chose late Atlanta rapper Shawty Lo as his walk-up music.

What helps encourage the MJLL kids to play is the representation of black players on the two professional clubs in the area. Many of them are fans of the Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones, and Lockett said he could see their “eyes sparkling” when Washington Nationals players Michael A. Taylor and Howie Kendrick visited. The Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, a joint venture between the District and the Nationals created in 2014 to promote baseball in the inner city, and its “YBA Play” program initiative donate Nationals tickets to MJLL, and the players attend Nats games about once a month.

“They’re fans of the game, but honestly, like anything else, they’re looking for people who look like them so they can emulate their stance, their swing, their pitching,” Lockett said.

Stephen Showalter, the sole white player on the predominantly black MJLL team, adjusts his gloves during practice. He chose the late Atlanta rapper Shawty Lo as his walk-up music.

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Alongside the efforts of MJLL, the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and, on the front-office side, Minor League Baseball’s Fostering Inclusion through Education and Leadership Development (FIELD) program, Lockett says baseball needs to create a more welcoming and familiar environment for young black kids if it ever wants to turn around the falling number of black players and fans.

MLB must embrace hip-hop, as the NBA did, and elaborate celebrations, as the NFL sometimes does. The league has to encourage non-organ-assisted chants like professional soccer and showmanship like professional baseball leagues in Japan have. Essentially, MLB doesn’t have to be so uptight.

“For baseball to come back truly in the community, they have to make it a community sport,” Lockett said. “Allow people to be themselves. If you do that, we’ll definitely come back to it because it’s a game we’ve always loved and we’ve always been able to play it.”

Being a part of Ward 7, a community that is 95 percent black and one of the poorest neighborhoods in the District, it would be reasonable for Lockett to be concerned about being the “black” team and all the connotations that come with that on a stage as big as the Little League World Series.

Tony Hairston of the Mamie Johnson Little League (MJLL) Majors U12 team runs to first base during a scrimmage against a team from Mexico at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.

Cheriss May for The Undefeated

Racial undertones have followed other black athletes crashing into predominantly white sports, from Tiger Woods and Serena Williams all the way to Jackie Robinson West, a team from the South Side of Chicago that won the 2014 Little League World Series, the first black team to do so, before having its title stripped months later because a rival white coach exposed that the team used players from outside its neighborhood district.

But Lockett said the team is OK with being known as the “black” team because they’re comfortable with who they are and who they aren’t.

“We didn’t set out to be the ‘all-black’ team. We’re willing, we’re accepting, we’re open. But at the same time, we’re going to take pride in who we have out here,” he said.

“We’re comfortable in knowing who we are.”

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"