Before there were organized Little League teams, with coaches hitting balls to nine 10 year-olds in anticipation of the big Saturday afternoon game, inner-city kids played baseball in empty city lots. These lots were oftentimes filled with dirt or sand with fluctuating terrain, making both home runs and errors more plentiful. Watching and hearing about great players like Babe Ruth or Honus Wagner, children imitated those stars in run down spaces that today most parents would label as too dangerous.
As those children grew up, they would continue to play in the lots, forming leagues and often
getting paid for their play. The best players would come together to form the best team. Players would often make
more money on the sandlots that they would as professionals. The cycle of a professional career would often progress
from the sandlots to the local pro team in the prime of their careers and then back to the sandlots because they
simply could not leave the game. Sandlot baseball reached its peak between the wars when many players learned how
to play in World War I and then returned home to play after work in factories and shipyards. Also, Many men also
spent those years in military camps where the recreation of choice was baseball.
|Local leaders grew aware the lack of funding for recreation. A myriad of sources began to contribute to an evolving
sports program in the city. They wanted to build gymnasiums, pools, and playing fields. By 1920, a small sporting
coalition within the black community had been established. The development of community centers supported up-start
sandlot teams financially but also encouraged more kids to join in and play. Pittsburgh developed heroes from barnstorming
baseball and basketball clubs, as well as a number of brilliant track and field competitors.
The city of Pittsburgh established scores of facilities. It paralleled other large Northern Cities like New York and Chicago in creating places for its youth to go. The YMCA, though greatly under-financed, managed to run a facility despite growing criticism that they were not doing enough. Allied with the YMCA were area churches that helped out the recreation centers with whatever money they could muster.
One of the products of the sandlot baseball in Pittsburgh was the upstart baseball team, the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Crawfords would develop into one of the premier Negro League teams.
Other sandlot teams did not officially make it to the pro level, but might as well be considered as pro teams. One such example was the 18th Ward Club.
18th Street Ward Team
"There were four critical factors to the 18th Ward's success: community support, financial backers, the inclination of team members to play ball, and the irrpressable tandem of Mellix and Moody."
Sandlot baseball was a springboard for the Negro League Teams, but also for getting youth passionate about baseball. Largely under-financed, it's amazing how long some of these teams could last. They united the communities, and helped out local area businesses. Sandlot ball in Birmingham was not as organized. Organized teams grew out of industrial life. The Black Barons were also one of the earliest pro teams. The community gathered to watch the Barons at Rickwood Field, and the kids grew up playing in the empty lots. Sandlot ball created a community based event, which is a far cry from what we see today in big cities. Today, sandlot ball might be comparable to a softball team in a small town where everyone comes to watch.