Presstman Cardinals continue tradition of bringing up ballplayers Smith family still makes program go

August 01, 1993|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,Staff Writer

While watching Robert E. Smith III play pitcher or catcher for the Presstman Cardinals under-14 baseball team, Robert II, often wonders if his son knows the history of the uniform he wears.

Or if he knows how 26 years ago his grandfather and former Negro League baseball player, Robert E. Smith I, dreamed up the concept of a team for city youngsters -- many of whom were the sons of former Negro League players.

Or how grandfather picked the team mascot because of the manycardinals that perched daily on his car in front of the same house -- 3307 Presstman Street -- where the league's 66-year-old patriarch is convalescing from prostate cancer treatment.

"Back when we first started playing, there was a lot of prejudice around, and we got called every name you could imagine," said Robert II, one of Robert I and Adelaide's six children, including five boys who are alumni of the Cardinals.

The program, with three teams sponsored by John Celentano and Bill DeVaney, has since become integrated and includes players from outside of the city.

"The main thing I'm proud of is that around 1982 and '83 the teams became [interracially] mixed," said Robert I. "With us being in the city, that was a great feeling."

At 41, Robert II is the eldest son, just a year older than his father was when he started the program. His brothers are Roland, 39, Rodney, 37, Reggie, 34, and Ray, 32. The two eldest are graduates of Forest Park; the others attended Walbrook.

Their sister Andrea Lavern Van, 35, has a daughter, Tay, 13, who plays softball, and a son, Andre, who plays T-ball.

"None of us felt forced into playing baseball, it was just something we all really enjoyed. It just became a family oriented thing," said Reggie Smith, who counsels juvenile delinquents when he's not coaching the under-18 team in the Baltimore Metro League.

A scout for the Milwaukee Brewers, Reggie tells his players "professional baseball isn't the real world, because I don't want that to blindthem to the most important things -- education and teamwork."

Said Roland, a science teacher at Francis Scott Key Elementary-Middle, "Four of us played semi-pro, but it never bothered us that we didn't play professionally. The main thing was always to play hard, but to have an education to fall back on."

Three brothers are college graduates and all have coached in the league at one time or another. All are gainfully employed and enjoying happy lives -- a fact Reggie attributes to the program's overall theme of "acceptance."

"I've found, over the years, that a more important aspect of baseball is it's a universal language, helping to break down racial barriers," Reggie said. "Once you do something well together, it seems that everyone's able to relate to each other and get along."

For the Smiths, there are many successful tales within the program. Walbrook graduate Gerald Coleman spent two seasons in the Orioles farm system after signing as a fourth-round pick in the 1980 free agent draft.

Another milestone occurred a year later, as the 16-18 Presstman Cardinals won the American Legion State title, 9-6, over Dundalk. It was the first time an all-black team had played in a state tournament -- much less win a state title.

"We started out with a 14-16 and we just built it on up," said Robert I, whose 14-16 squad had its first championship season in 1970 and 11 straight winning seasons until 1990.

Robert III leads this year's under-14 team. He is hitting .280 with 20 RBI as the Cardinals have gone 23-7 with titles in three city leagues.

The grandson's three-pitch arsenal has led to a 9-0 record on the mound with four saves.

"I don't get any special treatment, and I have to work just as hard as everyone else," said Robert III, an eighth grader at West Baltimore Middle. "I'm proud of my uncles and my grandfather, and I'm glad for the chance to play in a league like this."

Many former Cardinals return, longing to play again, so an unlimited team was formed in 1982.

This year's unlimited team includes former pros like Southern High graduate Andre Johnson (Atlanta Braves), Mark Taylor (Mervo High, St. Louis Cardinals), Laney Prioleau (Forest Park High, Detroit Tigers) and Rich Worley (Cardinal Gibbons High, Milwaukee Brewers). Player/coach Ray Hale attended Poly and Coppin State. At Coppin, he ranked among the nation's top 50 Division I players.

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