Here’s To You, Mr. Robinson
By Nathan Clinkenbeard
If you had a chance to meet Jackie Robinson, what would you say to him?
For the Anderson Monarchs, a team from South Philadelphia, visiting Robinson’s gravesite was their first stop on a barnstorming journey that took them over 4,000 miles around the country in 22 days. Each player took a baseball, wrote down what they would say to Robinson and left it at his grave.
Monarchs founder Steve Bandura created the tour for his team to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. It was also a way to honor the Negro Leagues and visit its museum in Kansas City during the 2012 All-Star Game.
Bandura’s first tour with the Anderson Monarchs was in 1997 to honor the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking MLB’s color barrier. Back then, he wanted to show his kids the rest of the country, but this year was the other way around.
“I wanted people to see this group of kids,” Bandura said. “There’s a whole lot of talk about the decline of African-Americans in baseball and that African-Americans have lost interest in baseball. This group proves that that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Bandura believes the reason why baseball is on the decline in the inner cities is more from a lack of opportunity than a lack of interest.
“When you think about it, the kids in the suburbs are getting 60-70 games a year playing travel ball against the best competition, and they’re training in the offseason,” he said. “Kids in the inner city areas have unorganized leagues, and they’re not playing the greatest competition with maybe only 15-20 games a year. There’s just no way they can keep up.”
The Monarchs are doing what they can to keep up. They have converted an old locker room, have a batting tunnel, and the team even uses video to work on improving their game. They play 60-70 games a year in 11U competition and have shown a group of inner-city kids can compete at a higher level.
When baseball season is over, the Monarchs do not go their separate ways. They stay together year-round and compete in other sports. Last year, the Monarchs won the Philadelphia A-League City championship in baseball, basketball, soccer and indoor soccer.
During their summer tour, the Monarchs visited close to 20 different cities, toured museums, enjoyed batting practice on the field at MLB games and met several MLB stars. Yes, they had time to play baseball, too, competing against teams they met at their different destinations.
The Monarchs went 10-4 on their barnstorming tour, but Bandura was not concerned with the scores or his team’s overall record. When the Monarchs play in tournaments back home they are usually the only African-American team competing, and Bandura wanted to show the kids they played something they never get to see.
“The games almost were secondary to everything else; at least that’s what it felt like to me,” Bandura said. “Looking back, it was more important to meet these other teams and interact with them. It was a lot of fun, and everyone made us feel so welcome.”
At the MLB games they attended, the Monarchs usually received field access for batting practice, and they got the chance to meet lots of players including Matt Kemp, Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer, Brandon Phillips, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano.
Monarchs outfielder Myles Eaddy loved one particular stop in Cleveland, Ohio where he and his teammates saw a game between the Indians and Angels. It was the experience before the game that had Eaddy talking.
“We got to go on the field with them,” Eaddy said. “We got to stretch with them. We got a couple balls signed. We also ran around the bases with them and played catch with them. That was one of the greatest things we did.”
To get around the country, the Monarchs did not have a state-of-the-art bus. Instead, they used a 1947 Flxible Clipper touring bus, much like the ones teams used when Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers.
The bus had been sitting in a barn in Connecticut for 25 years when a friend of one of Bandura’s friends found an ad for it in an auto collector’s magazine.
As you can imagine with a bus from 1947, there is no air conditioning on board. The breeze blows through the bus pretty well with the windows open, but traffic jams in 100-degree heat can become pretty hot.
There was also a specific rule for the Monarchs when they were in the bus: no electronics. That meant no cell phones, iPods or video games.
“It was really hot,” Eaddy said. “Sometimes we’d talk or play cards. We’d play UNO. One time we were really bored and just started singing.”
Even with the occasional hot bus rides, Eaddy loved the tour and was glad he had the chance to see the country.
“It was really cool because most kids don’t ever get to do this,” he said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Bandura would love to continue the tour on a yearly basis, but unfortunately, it’s too expensive. He hopes to take his kids back up to Cooperstown next year, and he said his ultimate dream would be to take the Monarchs to Europe or Japan at some point so they can see the world.
“My goal was to show people that when city kids are given the same opportunities they will embrace the sport and excel, and I think this group proves that,” Bandura said. “Hopefully, it will inspire others to start some more programs.”
If Jackie Robinson were alive to meet the Anderson Monarchs, surely he would tell them, “I’m proud of you.”
Anderson Monarchs Travel Itinerary
June 29 Left Philadelphia, PA
June 30 New York City, NY
July 1-2 Pittsburgh, PA
July 3 Cleveland, OH
July 4 Detroit, MI
July 5-6 Chicago, IL
July 7 Dyersville/Cedar Rapids, IA
July 8-9 Kansas City, MO
July 10 Columbia, MO
July 11 St. Louis, MO
July 12 Louisville, KY
July 13-14 Cincinnati, OH
July 15 South Point, OH
July 16-17 Washington, DC
July 18 Baltimore, MD
July 21-23 Cooperstown, NY
22 days – Over 4,000 miles!