For Howard Coach Chuck Hinton, a recruiting trip seldom involves driving across town to visit a local high school baseball player. He's more likely to fasten his seat belt for a 12-hour trip south, searching for what is becoming a rarity in the District: a good black ballplayer.
American, Catholic, Georgetown and George Washington universities have one black player each; Maryland has four. All 14 players for the University of the District of Columbia are black; 10 of them are from the local area. The team is 2-28 this season.
On Howard's all-black squad of 16, only one player--freshman pitcher Leroy Gravely--is from the District.
"The good black athletes in this area are playing football and basketball," said Hinton, a former Washington Senators outfielder. "If not, they're playing soccer and tennis."
"Washington happens to be more oriented toward basketball," said American Coach Dee Frady. "It's a shame, because big league baseball is full of black players and is doing very well because of it. It's just awfully difficult to compete with the glamor sports, football and basketball."
One reason the black athlete is likely to lean toward basketball or football is that there are many more full scholarships available in those sports than in baseball.
"I have to go out and recruit the same guys who are looking at Georgia Southern and schools like that," said Hinton, whose team is 15-29 this season. "I'm looking for a black kid. Everybody else is looking for a ballplayer."
Hinton's problem is a byproduct of the District's struggling youth baseball program, which has 131 teams operating under the Department of Recreation. The District also has nine Little Leagues made up of 10 boys' clubs. Only two of the leagues are for boys over 12.
"Our caliber of baseball isn't as great as some of the Southern Maryland or Carolina teams," said James Bethea, coordinator for Boys Club No. 6. "The league is weak but competitive."
The Department of Recreation League, which last year had about 2,300 participants, has had a slight decline in teams and players over the last 15 years. The sharpest decline has been in the 16- to 18-year-old age group. Last year there were 13 teams in this bracket, compared to as many as 28 teams in the mid-1960s.
Currently, the Department of Recreation League is divided into four districts. Each comprises two wards with leagues for boys ages 12 and under (79 teams); 13 to 15 (39 teams), and 16 to 18 (13 teams). This season, the department is attempting to reinstate the Pee Wee League for boys 10 and under.
"The absence of a professional team has a lot to do with the attitude people have in this city toward youth baseball," said Walter Brooks, District 4 manager. "I don't think basketball has created all the problems for baseball that some people think it has. It's more a matter of young baseball players not having a professional team they can relate to."
"Baseball is at its lowest level of participation ever," said Yates McCorkle, Ward 1 manager. "The decline started when we lost the Senators. When they were here, kids could go out and see, breathe and touch baseball at old Griffith Stadium. Now, it's a totally different atmosphere.
"Society is almost dictating what sports some people should play. Years ago, you'd put in a dirt field and the kids would play baseball. Now, you put asphalt down and up goes the basket."
The lack of enthusiasm for baseball in the District is not part of a national trend. According to Elmer J. Lehotsky, director of growth and development for Little League baseball, 1,100 new Little Leagues were formed last year. Lehotsky said Little Leagues now comprise 81 percent of all organized play in the country.
There are two requirements for Little League affiliation to be granted, Lehotsky said. First, an affiliated "area" must have fields that are considered playable. Second, it must not exceed 20,000 people or overlap another Little League jurisdiction.
Len Farello, baseball coach at Coolidge High School, believes the lack of structured youth baseball programs is taking its toll on high school programs throughout the city. Farello had 28 students try out for his team this season. In 1971, his first year as head coach, 75 showed up.
"We had to make cuts that year; we even started a JV team," Farello said. "I don't cut any more. The players cut themselves.
"I try to get my kids to play summer baseball, but it's like pulling teeth. Some play summer basketball, some work, some don't do anything. Baseball isn't very important to them. I had three boys graduate from my team last year and all of them went to college on football scholarships. Most kids play baseball now to keep in shape for other sports."
The District is not alone in its baseball recession. Recreation officials in Cleveland, for instance, recently attempted to curb youngsters' obsession with basketball by ordering boys' clubs and recreation leagues to lock up the basketballs.
"You reach a point where this is not really recreation, because kids are supposed to participate in whatever sport they desire," McCorkle said. "You begin to defeat your own purpose as a recreator.
"What we have to do is educate the kids who are still in elementary school. They have to realize there are scholarships available out there, and that you don't have to be 6-foot-9 or 6-6. You can be a little guy and make it in baseball.
"If you don't start teaching these kids very young, they're not going anywhere. We are the feeders for the high school programs. Once our program declines, you can see the ripple effect taking place."
The sight has become remarkably clear. At Ballou High School, Coach Duane Christian said he spends 90 percent of his coaching time "just working on basic skills. These kids have the talent," Christian said. "What they're lacking are fundamentals and technique."
"Area baseball is not quality baseball," Hinton said. "For the most part, Maryland and Virginia kids are super. They all come from strong backgrounds, starting with Little League and on up. We don't have that kind of organization in the inner city."
The college baseball diamond here has come to resemble a recreational wasteland. Debris-strewn fields have to be cleaned by the players, who also wash their own uniforms and account for all equipment.
"Baseball here hasn't helped itself one bit," Hinton said.
But it is trying. Hinton, aided by such former major leaguers as Fred Valentine, Rex Barney and Jim Hannan, has laid the foundation for an instructional system in the District that will operate throughout the year and be offered free of charge.
"We want to get back to grass roots and teach these kids the basics of baseball," Hinton said.