William Neal, president of James Mosher Baseball, Maryland's… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
Generations of kids have spent summer evenings pounding their cleats and sliding into home on a West Baltimore baseball field.
Now, a longtime youth baseball organization is hoping to refurbish the fields on which it has instilled teamwork and responsibility in those children for more than half a century.
James Mosher Baseball, Maryland's oldest continuously operating league for African-American children, started in 1960 to keep kids occupied in the summer. But after decades of play, its fields need help.
"The worst thing you can do on a field is play on it," said Reginald Exum, James Mosher's special projects coordinator. Right now, heavy rain can cause practice to be canceled for several days because of pooling water, especially in locations with heavy traffic like home plate, Exum said.
The group has raised two-thirds of the $120,000 needed for the project, which would add irrigation, renovate the two diamonds and replace the bleachers, as well as aerate and treat the outfield areas.
"We wanted to be able to provide players with a field where it can be as true to baseball as possible," Exum said.
Mosher has grown from six teams in those early days to 19 today, with nearly 300 boys and girls playing T-ball and baseball. Their 13- to 15-year-old teams play in a citywide Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities League run by the Baltimore Orioles and were among the kids on the field when first lady Michelle Obama brought her "Let's Move!" campaign to Camden Yards last year.
The organization is named after James Mosher Elementary School, located in front of the fields where families and their children gather six days a week through spring and early summer.
William Neal, James Mosher's president and a former player himself, started coaching in 1973, when he returned from serving in Vietnam.
"Our challenge is getting kids involved in baseball and maintaining that involvement," Neal said. "The biggest issue is keeping them focused into baseball after [ages] 12 or 13."
At that point, kids have many more options when it comes to youth sports, and some leave Mosher baseball in favor of lacrosse, basketball or soccer, he said.
The majority of children still hail from the surrounding Bridgeview-Greenlawn community, although about a third travel from other neighborhoods or counties, he said.
"It's a recreational anchor in the district," said Councilman William "Pete" Welch, who represents Baltimore's 9th District. He described Mosher baseball as not only the oldest but most recognized program for his community.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. said the neighborhood has been "like a hotbed of gang activity" for the past few years. "Unfortunately some young men over there are bent on destroying each other," Bealefeld said.
But Mosher baseball "is probably the biggest effort in trying to provide an alternative for young boys and even some young girls on those teams in that community," he said. "It's huge what they do."
Bealefeld praised the volunteers who provide "real mentoring" to players. "The James Mosher guys are just heroes," the commissioner said.
The neighborhood has changed since Mosher baseball first began, Neal said. It was once a thriving middle-class enclave that was home to teachers and doctors; now many of the households are headed by single parents, Neal said.
Organizers see a decline in parent participation from previous eras, he said. At the same time, there are former players who bring their kids back to Mosher baseball even if they have moved out of the neighborhood.
"James Mosher's got tradition like no other," said Sheldon Harcum, 34, of Pikesville. The former player now coaches a team, and his two sons play Mosher baseball as well. "It's authentic. It's like being home."
"They teach the boys about unity and family," said Melanie Hines, whose two sons Michael and Mekai joined the league this year. She lives in Windsor Mill but enrolled them in Mosher baseball because her uncle is involved.
Some kids are also unable to pay the $50 annual fee that includes most items, but not cleats and gloves. But no one is turned away, thanks to donations from association members, coaches and others, Neal said.
Mosher baseball continues to provide opportunities that are dwindling in tough economic times, Exum said.
"We want to make sure that the league remains an option for these neighborhood kids in the summer," he said. "We have to take it upon ourselves to make sure that this continues for the neighborhood."