Maritime Industries, Southside Academy pay tribute to Negro leagues

Maritime Industries Academy players, dressed in Black Sox uniforms, stand during the singing of the national anthem.
Maritime Industries Academy players, dressed in Black Sox uniforms, stand during the singing of the national anthem.(Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

On a warm, sunny afternoon at the Maritime Industries Academy baseball field, posters honoring members of the Negro leagues hung on the outfield fence and dust swirled under the banner honoring Jackie Robinson at home plate.

Members of the Maritime and Southside Academies wore gray and blue pin-striped replica uniform shirts of two teams that played in the NL — the Baltimore Black Sox (Maritime) and the Baltimore Elite Giants (Southside). And they played with wooden bats.

In this, the 1st Annual Negro League Appreciation Game, the Maritime Black Sox won, 11-1, in five innings, with pitcher Devont'e Lewis striking out 14 and allowing just one hit while going the distance.

But the real story on the field Monday was the living classroom at work.

"I had heard about the Negro League, but I hadn't really paid attention until I had to research a paper at the start of the season on one of the Negro league players," said Lewis, one of seven players to read Negro league player bios when introduced before the game. "I did pay attention then. I picked Satchel Paige. He was a pitcher and I'm a pitcher. He inspired me today. He once struck out 21 batters in a game when he was [a Major League rookie at age] 42."

On the other side of the field, the Southside Elite Giants' first baseman, Keon Ford, voiced appreciation for Robinson, who was honored by Major League Baseball Sunday on the 65th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

"He opened the doors for all of us," Ford said.

"He set an example for all African Americans, not to be afraid to play sports and to not waste your talents," Southside senior Rodney Berger said after hitting a single and scoring his team's only run.

The idea for this game took root last year at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards. High school teams were invited to the facility during the first President's Cup Baseball Tournament. Included in the museum tour was the area honoring the Negro League and a number of players from that league were there to meet the varsity players.

Teams didn't have to be participating in the Cup games to go the museum outing, and Maritime coach Steve "Chief" Shepard took his entire team.

"When they met those Negro league players, everything seemed to stop," Shepard said. "We stayed with them and some of the questions our boys were asking were insightful. They had a level of appreciation."

Shepard decided to have each boy who wanted to try out for his baseball team this season write a paper about a Negro league player. And then he thought, wouldn't it be great to play a game each year to honor those old ball players and what they achieved?

He asked John Eberl, the co-owner of Sports 55, a national sports uniform manufacturer based in Severna Park, to consider helping with the project. Eberl was interested.

"I think it's a wonderful thing that gives the kids an understanding of the obstacles their predecessors had to overcome to play the game," said Eberl, whose company provided the uniforms. "And any time you can use an athletic event to teach something, it's a good thing."

That was also the thought of Katrina Jones.

"I think it's good when you make the students do the research," said Jones, who sang a beautiful a cappella rendition of the national anthem. "It will always be more relevant."

Southside's Patrick Denbow, a freshman pitcher, who is white, said the event made for "a great day. I've made a lot of new friends since joining the baseball team. I think it's great what Jackie Robinson and these other old players did. They came out and fought to play to establish the Negro League so that eventually everyone can play together ... and it feels real good to be part of this game."