Redan baseball coach Marvin Pruitt took his players to see the movie “42’’ this spring. It documented Jackie Robinson’s experience of breaking the color barrier in major-league baseball.
Two years prior, Redan’s players spent spring break in Birmingham, where they visited sites of the civil rights movement. Pruitt also showed them 100-year-old Rickwood Field, where Willie Mays once roamed the outfield for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League.
“We play on history a great deal at Redan,’’ said Pruitt, whose 425 victories in DeKalb are the most in county history. “We try to instill pride in our kids that they’re furthering their development in baseball because of the lack of African-Americans at the major-league level. We’re losing our kids at a younger age to basketball and football, and we’d just like to build the baseball tradition back up in our community.’’
Redan made history of its own Monday when it became the first all-black baseball team from metro Atlanta to win a state championship in the Georgia High School Association. Redan swept 12-time state champion Marist in a best-of-three series.
The victory comes at a time when the numbers of African-American players in the major leagues are at their lowest levels since Jackie Robinson retired. They accounted for only 7.2 percent of major-leaguers in 2012, according to a study by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). From 1968 to 1997, African-Americans made up between 15 and 19 percent of major-leaguers.
Redan is doing more than its share to change that. Three of its graduates – Brandon Phillips (Reds), Chris Nelson (Angels) and Domonic Brown (Phillies) – are in the majors. No Georgia high school has more.
But Pruitt says that declining interest in baseball among young African-American boys is evident in high school sports in DeKalb County, which is predominantly black.
“When you talk about DeKalb recently, you’re talking about basketball,’’ Pruitt said. “The next thing that comes to mind is football. To be honest, baseball is even further down the line. We’ve had more success in track and field. We’re a little behind. Hopefully this [state championship] is the start of some improvement on and off the field.’’
By off the field, Pruitt means facilities. Those for baseball in DeKalb County don’t match those in Cobb, Gwinnett and North Fulton, which can claim 10 of the 12 metro public-school state champions during the past 10 years. The exceptions are Redan and Jason Heyward’s Henry County team (2005).
In DeKalb, only two public high schools (Dunwoody, Stephenson) have lighted fields. Many early season games are stopped after four or five innings because of darkness. To avoid that, Redan played its first seven games, and 24 of 37 overall, on the road.
Redan also lacks indoor hitting cages, which are standard equipment for almost every state contender.
“At Redan, when it rains we have to fight the track team, the basketball team and everybody else and go to the gym,’’ Pruitt said. “Sometimes we resort to the halls in school buildings to have workouts.’’
Lack of resources and financial support is another reason why fewer African-American players are playing professionally, Pruitt said.
“Today, the competition is in travel ball,’’ he said. “For a kid to go up and play at East Cobb (a nationally known program that has trained Heyward, Buster Posey and others), you’re talking $2,000 per summer. A lot of folks don’t have that kind of money.’’
And that doesn’t count the cost of equipment, instruction and travel.
Tradition helps keep interest keen at Redan. Starting in 1999 with Phillips, the all-star second baseman for the Reds, there have been 10 Redan players chosen out of high school into the MLB Draft. Phillips, whose family runs a hitting facility in the Stone Mountain area, has donated to the program and spends much of the off-season working out at Redan’s field.
Several former players and their families maintain an interest in Redan baseball. The parents of Phillips and Chris Nelson were at Monday’s championship series. So were several former college players from Redan.
This year, it’s expected that shortstop Wesley Jones will be drafted and go pro, bypassing his college scholarship to Georgia. Sophomore second baseman James Nelson, the nephew of former No. 1 overall MLB Draft pick Chris Nelson, is highly regarded. Pitcher Brandon Baker (signed with Missouri) and Corderias Dorsey (junior) also are pro prospects.
But for the Redan example to spread elsewhere in Georgia, Pruitt believes there must be help from the outside.
“That’s going have to be a selling job from major-league baseball,’’ Pruitt said. “They’ve gone back into the urban settings in California and Texas. I think it’s something we need in our area, too. We need something to show kids that there is a future in baseball.’’
Former Redan players who have played professional baseball:
Wally Joyner, Brandon Phillips, Milton Hill, Ahmad Woods, Skip Nelloms, Chris Nelson, Ricky Kimball, P.J. Phillips, Pax Briley, Chris Jones, Everett Stull, Neiko Johnson, Andy Taulbee, Domonic Brown, Corey Lima Kelvin Clark, Jamil Phillips, Tim Jones, Marcellous Manuel, Shawn Payne, Jeff Nebel, Patrick Smith, Clarence Watley, Deion Williams