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Youngsters follow Jackie Robinson’s Negro League path

July 17, 1997

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Jackie Robinson is more than just a footnote in a history text to 10- and 11-year-old baseball players from South Philadelphia. These guys are living Robinson’s legend.

The young sluggers, born about 40 years after the black player broke the color barrier in major league baseball, have given up television and video games to travel across the country in a 1947 bus without air conditioning. They have played 10 games in 13 days.

The weary boys wrapped up the tour Wednesday after facing an all-star team on a hot, buggy night in the Pittsburgh suburb of Carrick. The best pitchers’ arms had worn out, so walks dominated as other players tried their hands on the dusty mound.

And that’s the point, said manager Steve Bandura. The Anderson Monarchs, named for Robinson’s Negro League team, were mimicking the grueling barnstorming tours of the Negro League.

``Time was money back then, and you had to play as many games as you could to raise money,″ Bandura said.

Bandura, who requires a minimum ``B″ average in school from his players, includes book reports and film screenings about baseball history in his training regimen. Robinson is the boys’ main man.

``He is like my personal hero,″ said Randy Holman, 11. ``It was hard what he did. Most people couldn’t do it. It was hard to stand up with people cursing you and beating you up on purpose.″

Unlike Robinson, the boys did not encounter open racism on the road. Holman pointed out that they were allowed to sleep in any hotel and eat in any restaurant.

Robinson ``sometimes had to skip days without anything to eat,″ he said.

Bandura formed the team a few years ago after volunteering at a South Philadelphia recreation center and finding no inner-city baseball program. To compete with other teams, the players had to travel to the suburbs. All but one of the boys are black.

``I knew they would be playing in white neighborhoods, so Robinson is the perfect role model,″ he said.

Bandura introduced details of Robinson’s battle for respect on the field. And the young Philadelphians, in fact, soon got a taste of prejudice in occasional stinging comments from opposing white players. But since then, their exemplary behavior has earned esteem around the city, Bandura said.

The lesson from Robinson?

``Stay calm,″ Holman said. ``And keep yourself in the game,″ added Dion Williams, 10.

Bandura wanted to take the boys to the Negro League museum in Kansas City, Mo., and decided this summer _ the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier _ was the perfect time.

The trip was funded by sponsors such as the Philadelphia Phillies, the Philadelphia 76ers, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and JCPenney. City politicians and private donors also helped.

They played the first game in Brooklyn, stopping at Robinson’s grave so each boy could write a message on a baseball to leave for his idol. In Cleveland, they watched workout day for the All-Star Game. They toured Tiger Stadium in Detroit and Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Next, they headed to Dyersville, Iowa, to hit balls on the diamond used in the movie ``Field of Dreams.″

In Kansas City, they played at Satchel Paige Memorial Stadium, where they met Buck O’Neil, the 86-year-old former manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. Former Cardinal Ozzie Smith greeted the boys in St. Louis, handing a glove to the Monarchs’ shortstop. They played there at a stadium named for Cool Papa Bell, a Negro League star.

The team stopped in Louisville, Ky., before reaching Pittsburgh, home of top Negro League slugger Josh Gibson.

With all the baseball mania, spectators might never guess the same players make up the No. 1 soccer team in Philadelphia, also coached by Bandura. And the Negro League tour may not turn out to be their most exciting trip.

``Next year I want to take them to the World Cup in France,″ Bandura said. ``I’m trying to raise money now.″

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