Thomas M. English, the self-proclaimed “New Father of African-American Baseball,” is intent on reviving America’s pastime. As the coach for a new inner-city youth baseball league called the Childs Park Black Sox, English needs donations for expenses necessary for maintaining a team, specifically uniforms.
“For inner-city youth, playing a real game of baseball in a baseball uniform with real umpires is a dream come true,” he said.
Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, English has lived in St. Pete for 17 years and has been key in reviving Negro League baseball in a number of regions and cities around the country including South Florida, southern Indiana, Houston and San Antonio. He was also instrumental in reviving the St. Petersburg Pelicans, Tampa Black Smokers and the Zulus (in Louisville).
The original St. Petersburg Pelicans initially played in the 1940’s as a part of the Florida State Negro Baseball League. English taught himself the game of baseball and played for some independent teams.
“I can strike you out!” English boasted. “I learned how to pitch through two words spoken by Satchel Paige on a documentary: ‘throw straight!’ That’s how I learned how to pitch,” he said, laughing.
Extremely knowledgeable of the game’s history, the 57-year-old can dispense a number of facts about the pioneers of Negro League baseball, all the way back to John “Bud” Fowler, the first African American to play professional baseball.
In February of 1998, English decided to teach the St. Pete community about Negro League baseball history in a colorful way: by painting a series of murals on various buildings along 16th Street South. Though almost all have since been painted over by various businesses, the one that remains is of “Cyclone” Joe Williams, one of the fiercest fire-ballers to ever play in the Negro Leagues.
When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays hosted a salute to the Negro Leagues in 1999 at Tropicana Field, they invited English to the event along with several African American baseball greats, including Buck O’Neil. The legendary first baseman O’Neil made the trip down to 16th Street to personally view the murals.
With his obvious love for the game, English hopes to pit his teams against others in various area youth baseball programs such as Wildwood, Burg, Northwest and Seminole. In order to do so, English has until March 15th to get enough players and uniforms together.
“Either way I will still go on with my RNBI [Reviving Negro Baseball in Inner Cities] youth baseball program as I have been doing for 15 years, and host games and tournaments against the teams that I recruit on my own in Childs Park, Campbell Park, Bradenton, along with recruiting youth in Tampa and Orlando,” said English.
Though ballplayers of any age and in any era can come across obstacles, English believes they can find a way to play the game they love. In relating the hardships of the barnstorming teams of the Negro Leagues, he explained: “One team, one car. Nine players had to ride in one car. Three sat up front, three sat in the back, one sat in the luggage compartment and the other two guys had to hang onto the side of the car. And they had to change places every ten miles, despite the rain, the buckshot, the dog chasing you,” he said, and unleashed a deep belly laugh. He noted that some of these teams resorted to passing the hat, literally, to raise money.
“They’d go to wherever to play the game then in the middle of the game they’d take their hat off and pass it around to the people. That’s how they got gas, food and got paid,” he said. Just as those ballplayers had to do what they could to raise money to play, English is determined to figuratively pass the hat himself to see that today’s African American youth have the chance to participate in America’s great game.
English added that playing organized baseball can also be helpful in keeping kids off the streets and teaching them responsibility and respect.
“You can sow good seeds. That’s how you develop leaders. It’s all about educating our youth, reaching out to them and it’s a way to continue the history of African American-baseball. And the only way to continue that is through the next generation,” he said enthusiastically.
Registration is going on now at Childs Park, 4300 14th Ave S., Wednesdays through Saturdays from 4:306 p.m. Age groups are 12 & under and 13 & older. For complete details concerning donations or participation, contact Thomas English at (727) 851-8805 or visit his site at www.negrobaseballisback.com.