It’s a Wednesday evening in mid-June, the sun hot but not oppressive, when the bus reluctantly lurches into gear and groans past the redbrick row houses on 17th Street in South Philadelphia. Built in 1947—the year Jackie Robinson broke into the majors—the bus is pearly white with a bubble-shaped roof and a navy blue stripe streaking across each flank. “Anderson Monarchs Civil Rights Barnstorming Tour” is inscribed in bold on the rear. But what the exterior projects in grandeur, the inside lacks in luxury. There is no air-conditioning. Nor is there a functioning gas gauge. There are wood-paneled ceilings and 29 seats wrapped in worn, shamrock-green cloth. Draped across those seats are 13 boys, one world-famous girl, four coaches, and one driver—plus a mechanic, Tom, whose dedicated post is the first seat behind the driver. There is one thing upon which everyone agrees: Tom is the most important person on the trip.
A few rows back is Zion Spearman, the shy cleanup hitter with square, hulking shoulders who often felt adrift as a kid. “I actually believe that the Monarchs saved his life,” says his mom, Trazanna Spearman, who has raised him alone. Nearby sits Jahli Hendricks, the second baseman with aspirations to sell “I look better in baseball pants” T-shirts. He commutes 45 minutes to practice with the team every day—a small sacrifice, he says, because they’re like family. When Jahli was young, his dad inspired in him an interest in the Civil Rights movement. Next is the 13-year-old girl who, after a dominating performance in last year’s Little League World Series, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and became a global sensation. She’s pitched to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, published a memoir, won an ESPY award, met the Obamas at the White House, and starred in a short documentary directed by Spike Lee. Mo’ne Davis has waist-length braids, a 70-mph fastball, and the most striking hazel eyes you’ve ever seen.
All the way to the back is Scott Bandura, the catcher and leadoff hitter, and to his right sits his dad, the team’s head coach. Steve Bandura grew up in a northeastern Philadelphia neighborhood with “an Irish bar on every corner.” He’s 6-foot-2 but seems much taller. He rarely removes his Monarchs cap and exudes a Rockwellian boyishness that defies his age. He’s a fan of Rodney Dangerfield and has more than a hint of Rocky Balboa in his voice. Many of the 13- and 14-year-olds on the bus consider him a second father.
Every Friday evening for six months, the team has gathered in a windowless concrete room at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center (named for the woman who broke the color barrier at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera) in South Philly to examine Civil Rights history in the context of recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore. They watched films like Selma, Roots, and Glory. The purpose is twofold. First: “Young people can effect change,” Steve says. “These guys are at the age that they can start thinking about that.” And second: “This isn’t ancient history, and it takes a lot longer for attitudes to change than laws.”
At Anderson Fields, the Monarchs’ home, banners hang across the chain-link backstop in honor of former players who have gone on to graduate from colleges like Temple, Penn State, and the University of Pennsylvania. “Coach Steve says we’ll all be up there,” Jahli mentions casually one afternoon while Steve crisscrosses the field on a John Deere. “Scott, didn’t he say he was gonna build more fence to make room?”
“He said he’ll do whatever as long as we keep graduating,” Scott says. “I think he might put the master’s degrees on top of the other signs.”
Behind them, painted plywood signs bolted to the right-field fence honor Negro League greats like Jackie Robinson and Harold Gould, and farther along that same fence, just beyond the foul pole, three more signs hang like grave markers for Monarchs lost far too young—two to violence, the third in a motorcycle accident. (“It sucks because he overcame so much and was going to do great things,” Steve laments.)
When Steve started the program from scratch in the mid-90s, other teams refused to play here at first. “They thought they were coming to Beirut or something,” he says. “Now we have the nicest field in the city.”
In the evening he climbs a dimly lit stairway and unlocks the dented metal door to access the roof, his favorite “room” in the rec center. He doesn’t make it up here often—“I don’t have much downtime”—but he relishes the escape. He gazes out over the field, and the Philadelphia skyline rises up above home plate. From atop city hall the statue of William Penn peers back. Between them stretches the metropolis that’s home to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and all the inner-city trappings that make it so hard for so many to rise up themselves, to get somewhere else.
The bus emerges from the city and sails south down I-95 toward the nation’s capital. After so many months of anxious preparation and planning there’s suddenly a feeling of unstoppable momentum—of possibility.
No electronics is Steve’s policy for the duration of the trip. The kids can’t engage with the world if they’re fixated on a screen, he says. And so it happens on day one, the evening of June 17, that they remain completely unaware while most of the country grapples with unimaginable tragedy. They congregate in clusters of four and play fiercely competitive games of Uno. They quibble over seating arrangements, reminisce about their last tour (in 2012), and spring from one topic to the next. There’s a glut of questions and a shortage of agreement: Who’s your favorite baseball team? Who should be the starting pitchers in the All-Star Game? You like the Cowboys? Basketball is your favorite sport? You know the 76ers’ Robert Covington is the best player in the NBA, right?
They anticipate the exhibition games they’ll play along the way. They mull what’s in store for them in places like Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, and how they might be different when they return home 23 days from now, 4,500 miles wiser. At dusk, the bus pulls in to the Howard Johnson Inn in Cheverly, Maryland. They rise early the next morning to tie their custom Monarchs ties and don their navy blue blazers in preparation for a White House tour. They eat a continental breakfast off beige tables in a room with beige walls. And then from the television in the corner they hear the words coming from the newscaster’s mouth and read what is splayed across the screen.
Nine people shot and killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, last night.
Nine days later the President of the United States, delivering a eulogy that will likely go down as one of his finest moments in office, will struggle so mightily to articulate some sense of this terror that he forfeits to the moment and instead raises his voice in song: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”
But these 14 kids, they immediately understand. It’s just like Birmingham, they start whispering. It’s Birmingham all over again.
The first time Steve took a group of 14-year-olds from South Philly to compete against teams in his old neighborhood, the games weren’t even close. Friends consoled him that just getting the kids to show up was an accomplishment. “That’s alright, you’re keeping them off the streets,” was a common refrain.
“That’s not alright to them,” Steve countered. “They’re getting destroyed every game. What’s that do to their psyche?” He was frustrated by their meager expectations. “I wanted to prove that if I gave these kids the same thing I had growing up, they could compete in the city.”
Born in 1961, the same week that a bus full of Freedom Riders was burned near Anniston, Alabama, Steve can’t recall the Civil Rights movement ever being discussed at home or in school. Attending community college was a revelation: Interacting with black students dismantled stereotypes that had influenced him all of his young life.
He pursued a lucrative career in sales and marketing but at 28 began volunteering at the rec center. Mentoring inner-city kids evolved from a side interest to a consuming passion, partly due to an encounter with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “The thing I respect most about him is that his whole persona was built on this militant, Black Nationalist approach to everything—every white man is the devil. Then he does his hajj to Mecca and experiences something that doesn’t go along with what he’s preaching—he’s being treated as equal to blonde, blue-eyed people from other countries—and he has the guts to come back and say, ‘I was wrong,’ knowing it was going to completely tear down his entire persona.”
In 1993 his company folded. Rather than take a similar job 45 minutes away, he went on unemployment and plunged full bore into his work at the rec center. He launched a T-ball league for 5- to 8-year-olds and recruited 160 kids, naming each team after a Negro League club. “I knew that baseball had skipped a generation in the black community, and I wanted to reconnect the kids to the game,” he says. “There’s such a rich history.”
He gave each player a copy of Jackie Robinson and the Story of All-Black Baseball, a book that was deliberately above their reading level so that parents would read it aloud and learn at the same time. He landed a job with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation to make the work more sustainable, and after two years he formed the first Monarchs team (named after the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson’s Negro League team), culling the best players from each of the T-ball squads. He stressed fundamentals and the mental side of the game. They played together year-round and bonded like family.
Steve began helping his players win admission and scholarships to attend prestigious private schools. He ferried them between school and the rec center and often fed them in his own home. In 1997, he organized the first national tour to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s major-league debut, cobbling together funds from corporate sponsors because most of the players were unable to foot the bill.
One of the players on that trip, Raheem Ali Mapp, became the first Monarch to graduate from college, eventually earning his master’s degree from nearby Temple University. Today, every player that passes through the program knows all about the odds that Mapp overcame—his retired number hangs next to Jackie Robinson’s at Anderson Fields.
In Washington, D.C., still rattled by the news of the Charleston shootings, the team enters the office of Congressman John Lewis. Their White House tour was cut short, but Lewis does what he’s done for decades as a Civil Rights leader: He captivates his audience and renews their spirits. He regales the kids with stories of weathering beatings on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge as a 25-year-old activist and of the former Klan member that recently visited his office to apologize for attacking him five decades ago. Lewis embraced him, and the man sobbed. “That’s the power of the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence,” he tells them.
Back on the bus, they head south through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s home in Atlanta before cutting west to Birmingham, Alabama: 795 miles. On Mo’ne’s 14th birthday, they fill the pews of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four teenage girls were killed in a bombing on a cool, overcast morning one month after Dr. King declared to the world that he had a dream. Three of the girls were 14 years old, including Addie Mae Collins, whose favorite sport was softball. Media swarm and beg Mo’ne to speak a kind of prophetic wisdom inspired by the weight of this moment, for a poetic divination that would piece together the scattered shrapnel from Charleston and Birmingham and the 52 years of intervening violence. She is somber, unusually quiet; her eyes seem to sag from the burden. She wonders aloud at what those girls might have achieved had their lives not been stolen by hate.
Ninety miles due south, in Selma, they line up two by two to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Steve out in front alongside Mayor George Patrick Evans. For Zion, it is the pinnacle of this odyssey. “Martin Luther King walked here. John Lewis walked here,” he says. He feels the weight of every step, recalling Lewis’ memories of that Bloody Sunday in 1965.
He studies the Alabama River flowing 100 feet below, knowing it was here, on this spot, that Hosea Williams turned to Lewis when he spotted the police barricade and, anticipating an ambush, asked Lewis if he knew how to swim.
In Jackson, Mississippi, 196 miles west, Jahli studies the bullet holes in the walls of Medgar Evers’ home, remnants of the shots that ricocheted across and pierced the thin plaster walls when he was assassinated in his own driveway, his family right inside. How can the boy not cry when he sees the bathtub? That’s where Evers’ wife, Myrlie, and their three children hid when the man with a rifle spit his rage across the rolling plains of central Mississippi. Other players, too, become emotional, knowing what it’s like to wait for dad to come home from a long day’s work, imagining what it might be like if he fell a few steps short.
Jahli studies the bullet holes in the walls of Medgar Evers’ home, remnants of the shots that ricocheted across and pierced the thin plaster walls when he was assassinated in his own driveway, his family right inside.
They turn back north 259 miles to where the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School in 1957, and then east 137 miles to Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was slain on the balcony of room 306.
The long hauls line up. To the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville and the Urban Youth Academy in Cincinnati: 488 miles. To the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh and all the way up to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York: 684 miles.
Nearing the homestretch, they trek 243 miles to Boston through the emerald green Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, the bus putt-putting up inclines and gasping when the air brakes are slammed while cruising down hills. On the field for batting practice at Fenway Park, the kids swoon over Pablo Sandoval of the Red Sox and Dee Gordon of the Marlins—over their custom Oakley sunglasses and Nike armbands as much as their swings. Then Big Papi himself, David Ortiz, stands a few feet away, and they’re stunned into silence—until the wife of a Boston Bruins hockey player strolls by in a white crop top, and suddenly one of the all-time greats is irrelevant. “You think I have a chance?” one of the boys whispers. Straggler fans filter in as the players trot onto the infield, and Mo’ne throws out the first pitch. “Thank you for inspiring us and keeping the Civil Rights movement alive,” the announcer says.
“Let’s get in the game,” Steve barks when he corrals the team beside their dugout. “It’s the last game of the tour. Crank it up mentally right now.”
An ambulance siren wails in the distance, smoke wafts from the barbecue pit just beyond first base, and someone props open their window on the sixth floor of the brownstone apartment across the street from center field. The Harlem RBI All-Stars’ home field is crammed onto half a city block between First and Second avenues, one block from the Harlem River. Scott takes some warm-up swings for his leadoff at bat while Steve relays observations to the dugout. “The pitcher’s feet are together so he can’t have a good pickoff move to first, but the catcher’s got a gun so be awake.”
More than most sports, baseball is a series of ritualized eccentricities—windups and dugout chatter, sunflower seeds and conspicuous uniform adjustments—and although Steve conducts year-round, twice-a-week film analyses of every player’s swing to maintain fundamental soundness, personalities still have a way of shining through in their batting stances. Jahli sways slightly in the box, a rhythmic movement that starts in his ankles and is most pronounced at the tip of his bat, which traces symmetrical, bowling ball–size circles in the air. He’s loose and free-flowing but always under control. Zion, on the other hand, is all potential energy. He coils and remains set with almost no detectable movement until striking directly at the ball. After the first three batters reach base, Zion uncoils on a waist-high fastball that lasers over the center-field fence and across the street.
The Monarchs ding three grand slams and five other homers in the game—their 12th blowout win in 12 games on the tour. And yet, by the close of the first inning, Steve grows conflicted over their performance. Part of him seethes with frustration. “This proves that the state of inner-city baseball has got to change, because it’s even worse than people say,” he says.
With his first Monarchs team in 1995, he set out to prove that South Philly kids could compete with anyone in the city, but his project quickly outgrew that ambition. “We don’t even play in that league anymore because no one can compete with us,” he says. Still, the achievement of his players, both on and off the field, haunts him. “For every success we have, think of the hundreds of kids out there that never get the opportunity.” He can’t help but see the wasted potential of the kids right in front of him and countless others across the country that no one sees at all.
African-American participation in baseball is devastatingly low, and prevailing wisdom holds that black kids simply aren’t interested—it’s too slow, they prefer basketball, football offers more scholarships. But Steve has taken a sledgehammer to every myth. The problem, he argues, is that inner-city kids lack basic structural support. “Simply put, the playing field is no longer level,” he wrote in a memo to the MLB’s Diversity Committee. “In fact, it’s almost vertical. In its present structure, the inner-city player has zero chance of competing with his suburban counterpart. Zero.”
The greatest tragedy of this failure, Steve makes clear, is that one kind of success breeds another. After the game, kids huddle around a table scattered with crumbs of hot dog buns. The casual conversation pivots when Jahli’s 2-year-old brother climbs onto his lap. “Khai, who is Martin Luther King?” Mo’ne asks.
He ponders silently. “What about Rosa Parks?” Jahli jumps in.
“Bus!” Khai yelps. Everyone claps, and Jahli squeezes him a little tighter.
“You know, in five years he’ll be wearing Monarch pinstripes,” Steve’s wife, Robin, says to Jahli’s mom, Monique.
“That’s right!” she says. “Can you believe it?”
“And Jahli will be in college,” Robin says.
The bus stutters through Midtown Manhattan and pauses at a backed up traffic light near Times Square, where the driver of a black Escalade rolls down his window. “That’s a sweet ride,” he tells the kids. “I’ll trade you.” They make a right onto Fifth Avenue, and a lady outside the Prada store drops her shopping bag and snaps a photo with her iPad. They creep through the Lincoln Tunnel toward Secaucus, New Jersey, and the MLB Network studios, where they’re scheduled for a live interview. And here, on the final day of the tour, arises the most controversial call of the entire trip.
A head-first slide into third—more of a tumble, really, because the turf on the MLB studio’s miniature field is none too slick—and a heated debate ensues. Out? Safe? The players look to the dugout. Tom, the mechanic, juts his arms out. Safe!
“Nooooo!” the kids yell. “He wasn’t even watching!”
They’re interrupted mid-inning when a video plays on the big screen above right field, a highlight reel of their journey narrated by Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter. One by one they turn and plop down wherever they happen to be—on base, in the outfield. Up on screen, they’re circled around Congressman Lewis, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, sitting in the Birmingham church, ascending the steps at Little Rock Central. They point when they see themselves, both recognizing who they are and the ways in which they’re different now. The video concludes with a montage of several players reciting the words of Dr. King: “If you can’t fly then run; if you can’t run then walk; if you can’t walk then crawl; but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
They stand up and applaud; some embrace.
“That was awesome.”
And then a vexing question: “Should we keep playing?”
A silent pause. The mood has shifted. Eyes cast downward. A few glance around to gauge others’ feelings. Grins crop up, and all at once they realize the absurdity of this question: “Yes!”
They sprint back to their positions. First batter up there’s a line drive to short and a close play at first—the call, of course, is contested.
Then they’re back on the bus and heading for home, 98 miles to South Philly. Out come the Uno cards for a few final rounds. There’s a serious disagreement about a red 3 and a debate over who is closer to their respective sisters. The whole of the bus breaks out into what has become the unofficial anthem of the trip, by Wiz Khalifa: “We’ve come a loooo-ong way, from where we begaaa-an…”
They cross the Walt Whitman Bridge and pass Penn’s Landing. Another lyric, channeling Fresh Prince this time: “Innnnnnnn West Philadelphia, born and raised!” The bus swings by John’s Water Ice, a local institution, and Lazaro’s Pizzeria and Grill, where Mo’ne’s money is no good since she told Jimmy Fallon they made the best cheesesteaks in Philly.
And then, finally, the bus comes to a halt.
Anderson Fields to the left, unkempt grass whipping in the breeze, Jahli peers out and notices that no one’s even bothered to mow while Steve was away. “It usually looks like Yankee Stadium,” he says.
They bound off the bus and into the arms of siblings and parents. They grab their gear and load it into the trunks of cars. And just like that, after 23 days, they’re gone.
Steve paces over to the field and cranks up the John Deere. Dust churns as he plows across the grass, circling past the signs honoring Monarchs that have risen so far and those lost much too soon, prepping the field for those that are well on their way.