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Some see need for separate baseball league in south Brooksville

The witnesses I talked to didn't remember the score of the game, or which team won, or even whether the contest was played to the end.

But they do remember the teams were segregated, as were the jam-packed bleachers at Brooksville's Tom Varn Park — white fans of the Dixie League champion on one side, black fans of the Kennedy Park Little League's top squad on the other.

They also agree that as the game progressed, it got ugly.

"There was a lot of tension because the strike zone seemed to be different for the black kids," said Bill Stevens, the Times' North Suncoast editor, who covered this game in the mid 1970s for the old Brooksville Sun-Journal.

James Yant, current School Board member and then an assistant coach for the Kennedy Park team, recalls that the team's outraged fans started booing and yelling at the umpire and that Ernie Wever, one of the founders of the local Dixie League, grabbed a microphone to tell the black fans to quiet down — which outraged them even more.

"I'm not sure we even finished the game," Yant said, adding that the showdown between the league champions created so much hostility that, as far as he knows, it was never repeated.

Former Kennedy Park player and president Imani Asukile is now trying to revive the league, and looking back at that game, you see two obvious differences between then and now: Youth sports are no longer segregated and, 35 years ago in Brooksville, lots of people of both races cared enough about baseball that a single game could cause a community uproar.

Some people still do care, of course, and Dixie League programs in Brooksville and Spring Hill are still going strong.

But the Tampa Bay Rays' miserable attendance has made a lot of people question our passion for the game. There is some question about this nationally, too. A dog of a National Football League game last Monday night got far better television ratings than an American League playoff game between two big-market teams, the Yankees and Tigers.

And judging by the number of top baseball players produced, African-American interest has dropped to a new low. At the start of this season, 8.5 percent of major league players were black, compared to 27 percent in the late 1970s, said Richard Lapchick, who runs the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.

Generating a few black stars or more enthusiasm for the pro game might be a nice side benefit of youth sports programs, but it isn't what Asukile has in mind when he says he wants to get the Kennedy Park league going again. And it isn't the reason that I wish him well on what may be a long-shot mission.

What Asukile really wants to offer, he said, is the same structure and pride that he remembers in the league Lorenzo Hamilton created in the mid 1960s.

"He really breathed life into the whole program," Asukile said.

Hamilton, the newly arrived athletic director and coach at all-black Moton School, started the forerunner to the Kennedy Park Little League as part of the school's summer recreation program in 1966.

Within a few years, 80 boys from south Brooksville's tiny population were playing organized baseball, said Hamilton, a retired school administrator. "Just about every kid who was in that age group and was physically able played Little League."

That included athletes who later became famous in other sports, including pro football players Ricky Feacher and Jerome Brown.

"It was just the thing to do," Hamilton said.

In the early years, the league was segregated by necessity. The Dixie League was formed as an all-white organization in 1955 after Little League allowed an all-black team to play in the South Carolina state tournament. Wever, then a Brooksville banker (who didn't return a call to his home), established a branch of the league here in 1959.

By the late 1980s, though, Kennedy Park was integrated, said Asukile, who was league president at the time. In fact, for a few years, there were more white players in the older divisions than there were black players.

Participation declined through most of the 1990s, he said, and it fizzled out altogether just a few years ago.

With white and black players long accustomed to sharing the same fields, you might ask, is there really a need for a separate league for south Brooksville?

Yes, he said, because so few children from there play in the Dixie League — "just a tiny handful," said Mike Walker, president of the Hernando Youth League, which manages the county's Dixie programs.

Dixie's name and history might discourage some players, Asukile said. "Playing under the Dixie banner is quite a stretch." And finding transportation to Ernie Wever Youth Park, several miles north of Brooksville, is still an issue, both for kids and adult volunteers.

Even with ball fields in the neighborhood, the revival of the Kennedy Park league is going to be a tough sell. Only three people, including Asukile, diversity coordinator at Pasco-Hernando Community College, showed up at the organizational meeting last week. He's going to keep at it, he said, because of the benefits of youth sports, which are especially worth considering as our underfunded county park system continues to crumble.

Asukile, as a boy from south Brooksville named Dale Bennett, remembers the discipline that Hamilton instilled, the confidence he gained, the lessons about teamwork.

"I kind of discovered myself in that program," he said.

Some see need for separate baseball league in south Brooksville 10/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 8, 2011 1:58pm]
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