Blake Hickman
Blake Hickman Credit: Marc Monaghan

African-American kids tend to think baseball is boring, Blake Hickman says: “They like basketball because you can dunk, and football because you can make big hits on people.” Hickman, a six-foot-four, 210-pound African-American catcher for Simeon Career Academy, is hardly a boring player; he’s smashed many a fastball and has nailed countless runners in his first three years at Simeon with his lightning throws. That’s why he was a starting catcher and cleanup hitter in last week’s Double Duty Classic all-star game for high schoolers at Sox park.

Dunks never thrilled Hickman as much as a sharply turned double play. When he’d see one of those as a youngster he’d jump to his feet and holler, which made his friends scratch their heads. “They’d say, ‘Man, what is that? Oh, forget it, I don’t even want to know.'” To appreciate baseball, Hickman says, “you really have to understand the game.”

“Baseball is a calm sport,” adds Shane Brown, a teammate of Hickman’s at Simeon who started in right field and hit third in the Classic. “You have to be patient, and most people aren’t. The people who know the game can get excited about a ground ball. But you have to take the time to learn it.”

In the first decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, major league baseball’s popularity among blacks soared, along with the number of black players. But interest has dwindled in recent years, as has the number of African-American players. The Double Duty Classic, now in its fourth year, is part of an effort by the White Sox to showcase young minority stars to scouts and spark interest in the game among minority youth. The first of these goals will be easier to attain than the second.

The game is named for Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, a star of the Negro Leagues who sometimes caught the first game of doubleheaders and pitched the nightcap. After his retirement, Double Duty lived close to Sox park and often visited until his death in 2005, at age 103.

Admission to the Classic is free, and last week many groups of minority preteen day-campers, in their colorful T-shirts, basked in the sunshine in the lower boxes. They saw Ryan Perez, a lanky rising senior from the town of Hampshire in Kane County, start on the mound for the East. He throttled the West during his two innings, pitching right-handed in the first and left-handed in the second, which likely would have pleased Double Duty.

The West won, 4-0, with its pitchers limiting the East to two singles and striking out 12. East pitchers also fanned 12, and two of the runs against them were unearned. “Good pitchers always take care of good hitters,” says Hickman. He and Brown both went hitless for the East.

The pitchers gave much data to the many scouts pointing radar guns at them from their seats behind home. But with one batter after another marching to the plate, whiffing, then marching back to the dugout, this year’s game may have only confirmed the day-campers’ presumption that other sports are more exciting.

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