Ernest Radcliffe has coached the Morgan Park Mustangs for 15 seasons. Credit: Zahid Khalil

There’s nothing out of the ordinary about Morgan Park High School’s baseball field. The beige dirt is arranged in the traditional diamond shape, with intermittent cracks and crevices befitting the average city baseball field. The grass is a lush, deep green, in great shape for the middle of April, thanks to months of rain and snow. The outfield fence distances are uneven: the left-field foul line wanders into the school’s softball diamond, while the right-field expanse is halted only by a chain-link fence.

When I walk up to the field on the far south side on a Saturday afternoon this spring, I’m treated to an intrasquad scrimmage—Mustangs vs. Mustangs—after the opposing team pulled out of a scheduled game. The energy and decibel level is that of rival teams: their chirps and laughs can be heard from down Vincennes Avenue, lighting up the atmosphere of the sleepy street corner. But it’s just the Mustangs varsity team, wrapped in orange-and-green hoodies to ward off the extended Chicago winter. Looking around the field reveals a rare sight in high school baseball: every single person, whether it be a coach or player, is Black.

Just 6 percent of Black high school students in cities choose to play baseball. In that context, Morgan Park’s varsity team is an enclave keeping the sport alive for Black teenagers. The varsity team has morphed into a beacon of consistency, becoming a national model for what Black high school baseball can achieve. Their history is woven into the fabric of the Chicago Public League (the athletic body for Chicago Public Schools) and its vaunted Jackie Robinson South conference.

In 2021, they captured the city championship for the second time in the school’s history, rising above their fiercest rival, the Simeon Career Academy Wolverines, in a two-day war. This year, their on-field goal remains the same.

“Our goal every year is to win a city championship and state championship,” head coach Ernest Radcliffe tells me over the phone. “We’ve come close: we’ve won a few city championships. We were in the state Final Four in 2016. After winning the championship in 2021, we went deep in the state tournament, won the regional championship, and lost the sectional championship.”

Radcliffe’s lofty goals for his youthful charges make sense: he’s been at the helm for each of Morgan Park’s titles. Towering over the rest of the field’s denizens like a proud redwood tree, he looms behind home plate, barely protected by the flimsy net screen situated near the catcher. He’s an expert at balancing his stern urges with playfulness when necessary, allowing his toothy smile to break through whenever his charges crack jokes.

From behind his makeshift shield, Radcliffe acts as an umpire and a teacher. His raspy voice booms out so that even the outfielders can hear him without issue. When the freshman pair of Jayvion Price and Jairen Horton mess up their base coverage assignments, Radcliffe emerges to firmly correct their snafu. Price and Horton’s eyes are turned upwards, dead set on following Radcliffe’s orders: not out of fear, but out of respect. When he says something once, the team refuses to disappoint him again.

“He gets you whatever you need and all that extra,” Horton says. “You can look back at a bunch of things and think, ‘Oh Radcliffe taught me that, Radcliffe showed me that.’”

Radcliffe, who played in the Saint Louis Cardinals minor-league organization, is the nephew of Negro Leagues legend Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. He devotes the entirety of his days each spring to the Mustangs. His time and effort aren’t wasted. Each of the 18 or so kids who make up the varsity baseball team holds a love for the game that erupts whenever they step on the field. During the scrimmage, the intensity is just as high as it would be during their upcoming conference matchups. It needs to be. Due to rain and snow postponing multiple games, the Mustangs face a mid-April stretch that has them playing five games in seven days, dropping them right into the thick of their CPL slate. Their 4-1 record at this point is nothing to scoff at, but it certainly doesn’t mean that the job is done yet. “When you’re the champions, you definitely have the bullseye on your back,” Radcliffe says.

Radcliffe’s youngest son, Jacoby, stands high atop the pitcher’s mound, ready to try and mow down his friends and teammates. He’s average height and no more than 150 pounds soaking wet, but he possesses a steely assuredness and unflinching self-confidence that sets him apart. From the mound, the loneliest spot on the baseball diamond, the de facto team leader warms up while withstanding chirps from every angle.

“We finna get you this time, Coby,” his best friend, Preston Jones Jr., and Collin Williams yell as they prepare to face the senior Southern University commit. His father’s voice booms from behind the plate, shouting, “I’m not giving you any extra calls just because you’re my boy!”

As he strikes out the first two teammates he encounters, Jacoby takes a momentary victory lap. “Sit yo ass down boy!” erupts from his wiry frame as he blows an 85-mph fastball past his talented counterparts. It all feels routine to him, shaping up to be another instance where the status quo remains the same and the coach’s son dominates.

But when shortstop Jayvion ropes a single to left field off of Jacoby, the practice grinds to a halt. The hitters explode from the dugout, mobbing Jayvion and roasting Jacoby, shouting “the kid got you!” Coach Radcliffe’s boisterous laugh echoes alongside his players’ roars, with every member of the team basking in the joys of the children’s game. The pressures of repeating their 2021 championship are forgotten, and Black happiness is the only thing that matters, if only for a brief second.

“I’ve heard it so many times, but I love it when we go out of town to these tournaments,” says David Husband, the grandfather of Mustang pitcher Kion Williams. “It’s rare to see an all-African-American team play at a high level and compete against the best.”

The Mustangs in the dugout. CREDIT: Matthew Ritchie

Even if the old adage is trite in the realm of baseball, the Mustangs play the game the right way. The fundamentals of the sport have been drilled into their heads. Every hitter, from Jacoby at the top of the lineup to junior right fielder Lewis Dean in the nine-spot, is able to bunt and handle the bat in pivotal situations. Anytime a player reaches base, Radcliffe has them off and running, stealing bases and wreaking havoc on the opposing team’s defense. In an early-season game, a non-conference win against Leo High School, junior left fielder Kyle Hudson-Duff totaled five stolen bases by himself. This style of play is no accident: it’s rooted in the legacy of Black baseball, reaching all the way back to the Negro Leagues.

“Often historians point to the fact that it was a faster game in general,” says Ray Doswell, a historian and the vice president of curatorial services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “In fact, they did have a lot of heavy hitters with power, but they also had a lot of speed guys: base-to-base play was something that was very important. This was something Rube Foster emphasized with his founding of the Chicago American Giants.”

When I mention Morgan Park and coach Radcliffe, Doswell immediately recognizes his name and tracks the coach’s lineage back to the glory days of Negro League baseball in Chicago. “Double Duty” played on the Chicago American Giants for three different stints between 1934 and 1950. “There are stories of Foster making sure they did lots of bunting drills: that circles would be put in different spaces from home plate and making sure that they hit those targets. He would also fine his players $5 if they didn’t slide into a base.”

Radcliffe’s uncle and father introduced him to baseball by the time he was five years old and taught him everything they knew about the sport. Armed with the tools of the ancestors, Morgan Park forges ahead to defend their city championship title. To do so, they’ll have to claw their way through the Jackie Robinson South conference—one filled with fierce rivals such as Simeon, who they bested in the championship last year, Kenwood High School, and Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy.

Made up of primarily south-side public and preparatory high schools, this section of the Chicago Public League serves as a proving ground for majority-Black baseball teams to battle for supremacy. For some games, like those between Morgan Park and Simeon, almost every kid on the field is Black. It’s a vestige of the Great Migration, in which Black people emigrated from southern states to northern cities between the late 1880s and the 1920s, and the years of segregation in the north that followed it and persisted to this day, leaving schools like Morgan Park and Simeon 97.1 percent and 98.2 percent Black, respectively.

Morgan Park and Simeon are situated mere miles away from each other, and have a decades-long, red-hot rivalry fueled by proximity and familiarity.

“We all play travel ball together, but CPS is just different,” Jacoby says. “It’s just so competitive. Everybody is chirping. When we play our rivals, Simeon, we know it’s going to be tough. They’ll talk you out of your game.”

“I’ve heard it so many times, but I love it when we go out of town to these tournaments. It’s rare to see an all-African-American team play at a high level and compete against the best.”

David Husband, grandfather of Mustang pitcher Kion Williams

On a chilly afternoon in early May, the Mustangs travel to Simeon in the midst of a poorly timed losing streak. They’d dropped five straight conference games to Brooks, Lindblom, and Kenwood, each as heartbreaking as the last. Defensive errors and lapses in offensive production plagued them, putting them in sixth place with four conference games to go. But the games against Simeon have different energy. The Wolverines’ turf field runs up against the sidewalk behind the school, forcing the dugouts to be right next to home plate.

When Jacoby steps up to the plate in the first inning and takes a fastball down the middle for a called strike, “That’s one!” echoes from the Simeon dugout. The Mustangs will not have an inch of comfort in the batter’s box. It’s the type of energy Jacoby warned about, but was unafraid to confront when the moment came. After senior pitcher Damarion Redmond sets down Simeon in the bottom half of the inning, verbal sparring continues, with the Mustangs’ blazing orange jerseys acting as a foil to the Wolverines’ piercing blues as they crossed paths. Even as the frigid temperatures persist, the heated rivalry lights up both teams at every turn, making each turning point feel like the linchpin for a pivotal championship game.

The game is nerve-wracking, even to the neutral observer. It’s certainly elevated by the capacity crowd on either side, as Morgan Park and Simeon fans have made it feel like an intense pickup game at a family reunion. In the fifth inning, right fielder Lewis Dean singled, stole second, and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Each time he took off, the Mustang parents and dugout alike exploded in excitement. It’s the brand of baseball that they play, and it’s a joy to watch and be a part of at every turn, especially when it results in runs scored. In the end, it’s not enough, as they drop the game to Simeon 4-2: but even in defeat, the moments still resonate.

As I sit with Lewis’s parents, James Dean and his wife Areesha, James leans over to me. “My boy’s played for other teams, but I really like Radcliffe, I like this program, I just like this,” he says. “I wanted him to race motorcycles, and now he wants to swing a bat. And now I’ll rush home from work to see this, just to see them play.”

“We love it, they’re having fun, doing well, thriving,” Areesha says. “They’ve got aspirations to play college ball, I love it. Lewis really loves the game. I love what he loves, and he loves the game.”

Coach Radcliffe gives pointers to two Mustang players. CREDIT: Matthew Ritchie

Morgan Park’s previous championship success aligns with CPL’s campaign to keep baseball growing in Chicago’s majority-Black neighborhoods. A pivotal figure in this push is the organization’s regional director, Eddie Curry, who has been in the role on and off for 23 years. After rejoining CPL in 2013, Curry now oversees 80 varsity teams across the city. Teams consisting of a majority of Black players hold a special place in his heart.

“I want them to see people get out and come from a school like Englewood High School, go to college and choose to be at a Black university, that it can be done,” Curry says to me in late May as we sit together at Wrigley Field, the host site for the city championship. “My favorite part is seeing the growth and how much they pick up skill-wise. And if you notice, we don’t really have trouble and bad kids playing baseball for us.”

Baseball clearly has had a grounding impact in CPS communities: in 2021, all 11 seniors from the Morgan Park championship team graduated, with nine of them going on to play college baseball. That’s why Curry and CPL put an emphasis on growing the game from an early stage in the kids’ lives. They are piloting an elementary school baseball and softball program this year, primarily in south- and west-side neighborhoods, in order to jumpstart interest and development in the sports. Curry says he believes that it will go a long way in closing the advantage that north-side schools inherently hold.

“They’ve got more pitching on the north side, just by the fact they have more arms to go to,” Curry says. “We’ve got champions on the south side. But when you look at a school like Lane Tech, they’ve got 30 kids in the dugout. It’s more about depth, more of their kids want to play baseball.”

The north side-south side interactions on the field occur in out-of-conference games or in the city playoffs, where the stakes are highest. After Morgan Park trounce the Senn Bulldogs 21-3 in the first round of this year’s city playoffs, they make the trip north to face the Walter Payton Prep Grizzlies. The game is played at Seward Park, in the infamously gentrified near north side Cabrini-Green neighborhood, in the shadow of Payton’s buildings, which has one of the highest percentages of white students in the public system at 40.8 percent. The field does not seem fit for a city playoff game: it has no pitcher’s mound, and it encroaches upon softball diamonds on both sides of the outfield.

There’s no visible difference in the way these teams prepare. Both run through defensive drills with impressive efficiency, exhibiting a laser focus far beyond their years. The split begins with the first pitch. On the Morgan Park side, up and down the bench, each and every coach is loud. Their regal button-down forest green jerseys, emblazoned with fiery orange lining and a bold “MP” on the chest, make it feel as though they’ve arrived to handle serious business. Whether it’s an assistant coach rooting for the batter or Radcliffe pacing the field and barking orders at the defense, the Mustangs will be heard. Respectability politics and timidness go out the window—it’s time to win. They’ll talk shit, letting you hear about it, making sure you never forget your mistake. After Jacoby reaches on an error to start the game, he steals second, and scores after Preston laces a single to right, just like they drew it up. A 1-0 lead in the most important game of their season.

This intensity and confidence translate to the defensive side of the ball. Jacoby is on the mound, just as he was during intrasquad, throwing to fellow senior Kendall Garland behind the plate. Freedom and fun are flowing. Jacoby is dealing, racking up strikeouts, while the defense is flying around him, throwing out base runners as they try to move around the basepaths. All the while, the Payton players and coaches are quiet as can be, silenced by the energy Morgan Park has brought to their backyard.

But after a particularly biting spell of Mustang heckling, the Payton first-base coach comments on Morgan Park’s abilities to play baseball. He’s within earshot of the Morgan Park fans. A couple of the team’s dads, including James Dean, immediately tell him to cut it out and focus on the game. The exchange devolves into a battle of the masculine wills, and the first-base coach turns his back to the field completely. The spectators’ focus shifts away from their children to the ugly display of machismo occurring in front of them.

The first-base coach squares up and says, with an air of superiority, “We’re here to play baseball, y’all do what you do. We’re here to play baseball.” The statement strikes a nerve. It echoes a sentiment Black people encounter whenever they step into a white-dominated space: you don’t belong. It’s the attitude that drives Black kids and families away from the sport at all ages. Before it escalates any further, the umpire and a Morgan Park assistant coach command the Payton staffer to leave their fans alone.

But the line has already been crossed: “That’s why we don’t want to lose to them— they’ve got that privilege in them,” one Mustang parent mutters under his breath.

Still, the Mustangs play a focused game. After a disastrous fourth inning where they give up seven runs, they crawl back within one, making it 7-6 going into the bottom of the sixth. But when Payton sends a fly ball deep to center field, Jacoby chases it all the way back, across a softball field, until he collides with the black chain-link fence and drops to the ground as the Payton players round the bases. His teammates and coaching staff sprint across the field to help him. Time stops for every Black person there, eyes locked on the horizon, waiting for Jacoby to pop up, like he always did. After an eternity of five minutes, he slowly rises and shakes off the hardest collision I’d ever seen. When he snaps out of his malaise, the score is 9-6, Grizzlies.

And that’s how the game would end. An inning later, Morgan Park was eliminated from the city playoffs, ending their quest to repeat before it could truly flourish. There’s no tone of regret or anger, just sadness for the result. That sadness comes from a belief in the Mustangs’ ability to repeat as champions, from pride in the way that they played and competed every day. Each member of that program cared deeply about the result, stemming from a love for each other and the game they played together.

“You know we didn’t give up, it was a tough situation,” coach Radcliffe says to me after the team breaks from their postgame circle. “I just want them to stay positive, it was a hell of a game.

“We fought like champions.”

Welcome to the skate park

“When we go to a skate park, we take up space, and then all of a sudden you don’t see a bunch of guys trying to tell you to move out the way, ’cause we’re the majority now,” says Lid Madrid. “And we’re taking up space, and just changing the way that skate parks traditionally…