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John Schulian
August 12, 1974
While manufacturing amateur titles, a Baltimore sandlot team stamps out major league products
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August 12, 1974

Red-hot Factory For The Pros

While manufacturing amateur titles, a Baltimore sandlot team stamps out major league products

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"When they go and import kids from out of state, we don't feel that's what the amateur program is for in the city," said oft-beaten Loch Raven Coach Charlie Sullivan. In the past there had been complaints about Leone's being an Oriole farm team (the creation of the major league draft ended that talk), about players being paid (they were, if you consider Mama Leone's spaghetti dinners a salary) and about stealing players (Youse has always thought that if a player beats you, he should be playing for you). But this time the complainers were on more solid ground than before. Loch Raven used it as an excuse to lead an exodus from the city's Tri-Club League, where Johnny's rules, to the Hot Stove League, where there is no Johnny's. Four other Tri-Club teams followed.

The Tri-Club League, which constitutes the heaviest part of Johnny's schedule with three games a week, was left with a skeleton of four teams. Then The Team flexed its muscles. At Youse's suggestion, Wilbanks decided to sponsor a black team in the Tri-Club. Youse and Walter talked three strong teams in Washington, Virginia and southern Maryland into forming a Saturday alliance called the League of Champions. And just in case anyone still thought Johnny's had been humbled, Walter announced he had picked up five out-of-state players and four more from the teams that had abandoned the Tri-Club League.

The Team's antagonists call the imported talent outsiders. There has never been more of an outsider than Reggie Jackson, who was Leone's first black player. Jackson, in Baltimore for the first time to visit his divorced mother, did not know the racial situation when he called Youse for a tryout in 1965. Youse did not know Jackson was black because, says Reggie, "I could talk like a white boy." When Jackson showed up at Swann Park, his A-frame torso advertised by a tight T shirt and shorts, Youse had him hit, run and field against the best players on The Team. After watching Jackson put on an exhibition he has seen no other amateur equal, Youse is supposed to have said, "He looks whiter all the time." Youse denies the story now. No matter, Jackson became a pioneer, a reluctant one who purposely missed a road trip to rural Virginia for fear of what might happen to him there.

"I guess we were prejudiced," Dominic Leone admits. It was a politic thing for him to be as a councilman who represented a district where blacks were unwelcome. "I had a lot of friends who still won't talk to me because Reggie played for us." Leone says.

The name of The Team may have changed, but Jackson is still being used as a measuring stick. "That's the way Reggie used to hit them," Jimmy Foit, one of The Team's coaches, said admiringly as he watched a youngster named Willie Aikens slam one batting-practice pitch after another toward Swann Park's distant softball fields.

Aikens is from South Carolina State College and a 6'3", 230-pound replica of Kansas City's John Mayberry. When Aikens was not working out as a defensive end this spring, he was playing college baseball and batting .472 with 11 home runs and 40 runs batted in. George Henderson, who recruits talent for The Team as fervently as he runs a sporting-goods store for Brooks Robinson, decided Aikens would give Johnny's the crunch it needed after watching him decimate Morgan State. A few smooth words from Henderson after that game and Aikens was ready to sign on before boarding the bus back to South Carolina.

Forsaking the catcher's mitt he used at college for the first baseman's glove Youse and Walter say he will wear as a pro, Willie came out swinging in Johnny's first Tri-Club League game of the summer. The victim was Kelly Post 140 of the American Legion, which had ignored the great defection. Aikens drove in three runs with two singles, one of which was hit so hard that the rightfielder was picking it up when the second baseman was still reaching for it. "He gets it up in the air," Youse said, glancing at the Patapsco River, "and you're minus one tugboat."

There was a celestial quality to Aikens' slugging and to the 11-strikeout, three-hit pitching of Chuck Porter, a righthander from Clemson, as The Team won 8-0. Still, Bernie Walter saw devils to be exorcised. One base runner lost valuable ground by rounding second too widely, and another nearly was picked off third. Minor transgressions, perhaps, but they could prove fatal in a big game, and that is not the way Johnny's plays baseball. Bernie Walter would have to talk to The Team about that.

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