In the spring of 2008, a former convict and drug dealer named Rodney Mason was starting a Little League baseball team in Newark. Only two of his recruits had played before, and “the others were young and scrawny and clueless,” writes Jonathan Schuppe. “Most didn’t have gloves, and some didn’t know if they threw right-handed or left-handed.” Mason’s sister Darlene asked him: “Where did you get these kids? They cannot play baseball.” The coach replied: “That’s all right. I’m-a teach them.” And he did.
A gunbattle over a girlfriend had left Mason confined to a wheelchair, yet he molded his mob of misfits into a credible team, the Newark Eagles, that won a bunch of games that year, including a stirring victory over its archrival, the Black Yankees, as the regular season ended. Schuppe, then an investigative reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, wrote a front-page story about the Eagles, and “Rodney could not travel past his lobby without someone congratulating him. ‘Keep it up,’ they told him. ‘Don’t let nobody stop you.’ ”
Sounds like a movie, right? With Denzel Washington playing Mason and a group of adorable kids learning to love baseball and each other. But real life doesn’t always work that way. It turns out that the coach was still selling dope. The Eagles lost in the playoffs and then slowly disintegrated as players grew too old or uninterested. The story had no fairy-tale ending, and Schuppe could not hide his disappointment. “All this time,” he writes, “I’d been waiting for Rodney’s journey to come to some kind of climax, a final turnaround at which point he could declare that he was saved, redeemed, a new man. But that was not going to happen. Not the way I hoped.”
I was rooting for Mason and the Eagles, and I shared the author’s letdown. I grew up in Bayonne, just a few miles east of Newark, and in the 1950s the Weequahic neighborhood where this story takes place was heavily Jewish. I visited the area occasionally to shoot hoops or chase girls and thought Weequahic was a Jewish name, like Weinberg. In the ’60s, Newark synagogues tried to halt white flight to the suburbs by building luxury apartment buildings with names like Zion Towers, but it didn’t work. By the early ’80s Weequahic was choking on the fumes of a toxic drug culture, and by age 14 Mason was an accomplished dealer. “This is not what I want to do, but I’m tired of struggling,” he told his sister. “I’m tired of not having.”
For many black men in Newark, drugs led to addiction and arrest. “The pull of prison, it seemed, was contagious,” Schuppe writes, and for the city’s children that often meant growing up without dads and without baseball. “Baseball had always been a game that children learned from their fathers, and in too many cases — six out of 10, according to Newark census figures — fathers weren’t around.” Schuppe describes a charter school where young kids expressed their feelings in art class: “A student had drawn bars of bright pastels and scrawled over it, ‘I wish I could go back to the past and stop many dads from dying.’ ”
That’s why Mason, imperfections and all, is still a hero. A star pitcher in high school, he saw baseball as “a symbol of childhood, of an unspoiled life.” He was determined to give his players a small taste of that life, and fatherless families were only one of many obstacles in his path. Baseball fields and equipment are expensive, colleges give few athletic scholarships in the sport, and the percentage of African Americans on major league rosters has been dropping steadily for years (about 8 percent this season, down from a peak of 27 percent in 1975). Inner-city kids saw “few faces like theirs in the major leagues [and] baseball became uncool, a white man’s game.”
Schuppe, who now reports for NBCUniversal, readily concedes his book’s biggest flaw. He got so entangled with his characters that he crossed the line from observer to participant, “meddling” in their story and trying to shape its outcome through his admonitions and advice. So the author felt betrayed when he discovered that Mason was still selling drugs, long after the coach had sworn he had gone straight. “I hated myself for being so blind,” Schuppe admits. “This was why reporters weren’t supposed to get too close to their subjects.”
He’s right, of course. But the same passion that led to his meddling also led to his digging, his listening, his caring. He has produced a compelling book, even if there’s no fairy tale ending and Denzel Washington doesn’t play the main character in the movie.
A CHANCE TO WIN
Boyhood, Baseball, and the Struggle for Redemption in the Inner City
By Jonathan Schuppe
Henry Holt. 274 pp. $26