Mo'ne Davis, team end tour at MLB Network
Anderson Monarchs covered 4,000-plus miles, visited civil rights sites, met legends
Mo'ne Davis made history last summer when she became the first girl to earn a win and pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. This summer, she witnessed history, as she and her team, the Anderson Monarchs, set off on a 23-day, 21-city barnstorming tour to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, the Negro Leagues and the civil rights movement.
On Friday, the group of 13- and 14-year-old ballplayers paid a visit to MLB Network's Studio 42 -- named for Robinson -- in Secaucus, N.J., before heading home to Philadelphia. They played an hour-long Wiffle ball game on the studio's miniature field. Davis got former big leaguer and MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa to swing out of his shoes, and her teammates took cuts against former big league pitcher and MLB Network analyst Al Leiter.
"The kids do this kind of stuff every chance they get, in the hotel parking lots and at rest stops along the road," says Monarchs coach Steve Bandura. "But they all watch MLB Network constantly and are so up on all the stats and all the players that this visit really means a lot to them."
It was a light-hearted end to a trip that included such sobering and eye-opening stops as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.; the Jackson, Miss., Greyhound bus station; the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.; and Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, all of which were integral sites in America's battle for civil rights.
The trip, organized by Bandura, was designed to allow the kids to experience history rather than just read about it.
"You have to know your history to know which direction you're heading in," Bandura says. "If you don't understand the civil rights movement, there's no way you can put Ferguson or Baltimore into context and understand what's happening in our country today."
The Monarchs visited many other notable sights on their 4,000 mile trip; the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.; the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City; the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.; and Jackie Robinson's gravesite in Brooklyn. They met Negro Leagues star Ted Toles Jr. and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. And they played 12 games against other inner-city youth baseball teams, all of which they won.
"The highlights have been Washington, where we met John Lewis; Birmingham, where we played at Rickwood Field and saw the 16th Street Baptist Church; and Fenway Park, where we went into the Green Monster after the game," said second baseman Jahli Hendricks.
The Monarchs heard the news of the recent Charleston, S.C., shooting on the first morning of their trip, and met Representative Lewis of Georgia, who has been a leader in the civil rights movement for over five decades, just a few days later.
"When we heard the news of Charleston, one of the boys said, 'I can't believe it, it's Birmingham all over again,'" Bandura said. "Then I heard the questions they asked Lewis, and I knew they were really paying attention and really understood the significance of the events."
Rickwood Field, built for the Birmingham Barons in 1910, is the oldest surviving professional ballpark in the country, and has been maintained to look exactly as it did in 1936. The Monarchs took on the Birmingham Black Barons youth team at Rickwood on June 24, with each team wearing replica Negro League uniforms.
"It really looked like we had stepped back in time for a Negro League game," Bandura said. "It was a surreal experience."
The team made its journey through the Midwest, to the deep South, and back up the East Coast aboard a vintage 1947 Flxible Clipper tour bus from the same year in which Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. It is also the same type of bus Robinson's Kansas City Monarchs, the team's namesake, used to travel to their Negro League games. The bus has no air conditioning and an engine from 1972. While on board, electronics were not allowed, because Bandura wanted his players to see history with their own eyes, and they couldn't do that if their heads were buried in their cell phones. They also talked, played cards and wrote in journals every day. Davis has enjoyed the unplugged time with her teammates, but she added, "It gets really hot in there."
Davis was particularly moved by the visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four 14-year-old black girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. Davis turned 14 on the day of the visit.
"I do feel really bad, because [the victims] could have changed the world," Davis told The New York Times. "And for them to lose their lives at such a young age? You never know what they could have done."
And that, to Bandura, is the entire point of the trip. He gave his players the gift of knowledge and allowed them a glimpse into history that most teenagers don't get to see.
"These kids can effect change, and they should want to effect change," says Bandura, who often quotes Robinson to his players. "A life is not important," he quoted, "except in the impact it has on other lives."
Friday afternoon, Bandura's barnstorming Monarchs boarded their bus, double-parked in the street outside MLB Network, and headed back home to Philadelphia, a group of changed kids who believe they can change the world.