Simeon Career Academy's Terrance Robertson just doesn't have it. His fastball's got no zip, his off-speed pitches not enough break. Toeing the rubber against rival Whitney Young in a crucial conference game early this April, the Wolverines' sophomore hits the leadoff hitter in the back, then throws an errant pickoff attempt past his first baseman's outstretched glove. It's not the start he's hoping for. A ground ball sneaks into the hole on the right side of the infield, scoring the game's first run. Robertson serves up a meek curve to the third hitter, who scalds a line drive to the outfield. Whitney Young's cleanup hitter smashes a first-pitch fastball into the right-center gap, plating two more. Before the Simeon faithful even get settled into West Chatham Park's lone rusty grandstand, the visitors have sent 13 batters to the plate, and eight have come around to score.
Watching the carnage unfold before him, Simeon head coach Leroy Franklin repeatedly swears under his breath. He's not accustomed to losing. When the half inning mercifully ends, the team runs dejectedly off the field. Franklin rises slowly from the bucket of baseballs he uses as a seat, gathers the boys into a half circle, and starts jawing. His potbelly is stuffed inside a puffy Wolverines jacket, his bald head, flat nose, and rimless glasses partially obscured by a blue cap with classic yellow piping. Simeon athletic director Reginald Brock, who both played for and coached alongside Franklin, is taking in the scene down the left-field line—and knows exactly the type of message the veteran skipper is delivering. "He has a way of motivating kids," Brock says. "He challenges your manhood."
The team rises to Franklin's challenge. The offense chips away at Whitney Young's lead: three in the first, two in the second, three more in the third. The defense, which committed two errors in the opening frame, tightens up. Jamari McKinney, a right-hander with decent but not overpowering stuff, shuts down the visitors in relief, scattering six singles and striking out six over the next five innings. Young does threaten briefly in the third, loading the bases with one out, but McKinney induces an inning-ending 1-2-3 double play, and then lets rip an animated howl of joy as he struts off the mound.
Two innings later the score is tied with two men on base and the temperature is dipping. Into the batter's box steps senior Corey Ray, the team's center fielder and most dangerous hitter. The Wolverines bench livens up, singing and clapping to its own version of the infamous Atlanta Braves "Tomahawk Chop" chant. Ray swings through a fastball and watches a backdoor slider catch the outside corner, falling behind in the count. He calls time, takes a breath, and glances down at the third-base coaching box, where Franklin, in a gravelly baritone, shouts a simple directive at his star: "HIT YOUR PITCH." Ray nods, digs in, sees a hanging curve float lightly over the plate, and laces it into left field, knocking in a run and giving Simeon a 9-8 lead.
An inning later, after the home plate umpire calls the game on account of darkness (with Simeon six runs ahead), Franklin is thrilled. That morning, he'd mentioned how his talented team—7-4 through April 22—can, at times, lose focus. "You have to go out there and just play, play, play, play," he says, clapping his hands for emphasis. "Just play like it's the last game of your life."
In a career spanning nearly four decades on Chicago's south side, Franklin—the only African-American member of the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame—is the Chicago Public League's (CPL) most decorated manager. At 70 years old, with his 1,000th game at the varsity level quickly approaching, he's recorded more victories than all but four coaches in Illinois history.
The one missing item on Franklin's resumé is a state championship, a prize that has painfully slipped out of his grasp more than once. It's also one that few baseball insiders expect a public high school in Chicago to win anytime soon. Franklin has seen interest in his beloved sport drop markedly among the black urban teens he coaches. This season, with time running out and many writing his program off, Franklin and his Wolverines—arguably the most gifted team he's had in years—are determined to carry the elusive trophy back to Chatham.
No CPL school has won a state title in baseball since Hubbard High School took home the crown in 1973. The 40-year drought is a crude measuring stick, to be sure; lots of great teams from all corners of Illinois never win the big one. But it's representative of the sport's sinking popularity among black teens in Chicago, and the resulting decline in the level of play at many public high schools.
The reasons for this vary, depending on who is describing them. Baseball is a skill game, the foundations of which are difficult to master. It helps to learn the basics from knowledgeable coaches at a young age, on manicured fields, and with modern equipment, all things many suburban leagues can provide and financially strapped city parks and youth programs often lack. "Baseball is one of those games that you pass down from father to son," says Kenny Fullman, the veteran head coach at Harlan Community Academy High School and an area scout for the Chicago White Sox. "A lot of fathers are not in their lives to pass the game down."
Any existing achievement gap is difficult to close at the high school level, where athletic budgets vary wildly between city, suburban, and parochial schools, and where city coaches rarely hold one job for longer than a cup of coffee.
Youth sporting culture has changed, too. Basketball is easier to play informally than baseball and, since the days of Magic and Jordan, is more glamorous. Because of an NCAA bylaw tying scholarships to the amount of revenue a sport raises, there's even a limit to the number of college scholarships baseball teams can offer, which may push needy players into another aisle at the sporting goods store. "We used to play football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring and summer," says Fullman, who grew up on the south side. "Now, you've got AAU basketball, you've got the combine camps for football. Kids are specializing in one sport." Adds Brock: "You do not see the kids who are 6'3" and 6'4", the exceptional athletes, playing baseball."
At Simeon, where 98.8 percent of the 1,460 students are black and 87.4 percent are considered "low-income," Franklin has made do. "The success of the program pretty much lies on the shoulders of Leroy Franklin," says Brock, who graduated from the Chatham school in 1984. "He took a very defunct program, he was able to attract some kids from the local Little Leagues, and he developed a powerhouse over here in terms of public leagues."
Leroy Franklin and his three siblings grew up in New Orleans's 7th Ward. Their father, the oldest of 12, was a welder, and their mother a hospital cook. Money was tight, though his parents made sure their home was comfortable and their kids had enough to eat. "They were tremendous," Franklin says. "My mother and father put the money that they made into us."
In the Franklin household, you asked permission to leave the house, you were polite to neighbors and elders, and you damn sure went to school. "When he was young, my dad wanted to go to school so desperately bad," Franklin says. "During segregation time, he had to walk ten or 15 miles to get there, and there was no money for the bus." His father dropped out after the eighth grade. Leroy Franklin remembers missing just one day of class in the 18 years he lived under his parents' roof.
As a nine-year-old, he organized his neighborhood's first baseball team. The boys wore matching white T-shirts and called themselves the Mohawks. (They couldn't coordinate footwear; Franklin only owned one pair of shoes.) Franklin started as a catcher, a position made more hazardous without a proper mask or chest protector, before switching to middle infield, where his quickness was a greater asset.
His coaching career started earlier than most; his brother, five years his junior, and several younger cousins wanted to field a team, and Franklin—then 16, and a role player on his high school squad—volunteered to help. Little Joe's Food Store, a grocer on St. Anthony Street, offered a sponsorship. "We were very, very good," Franklin says with a smirk. Within a year, they'd claimed the 12-year-old city championship.
From New Orleans Franklin moved to Grambling, Louisiana, where he enrolled at Grambling State University to study physical education. After he graduated, in 1966, his roommate—a Chicago native—convinced him to move north. Chicago seemed as good as anywhere to live, and he was able to pick up work, securing a teaching job at Betsy Ross Elementary, at 61st and Wabash, and a side job in facilities at North Lawndale's Douglas Park. Despite his passion for competition, coaching in an unfamiliar city wasn't a commitment he was ready to make. It took several years of settling in, not to mention some insistent lobbying from Simeon's staff, to convince Franklin to step back onto the diamond. In 1975, he reluctantly accepted a job as the school's sophomore manager.
Franklin's first squad looked more like the Bad News Bears than potential city champs. Of his 18 players, he remembers three who were "decent." The rest? "They just couldn't do anything," he recalls. "We're talking about 14- and 15-year-old boys that you were almost afraid to throw the ball to."
The team worked hard, practicing for hours on days when no game was scheduled. ("If you couldn't practice on a Sunday, you couldn't play on my team," Franklin says.) They would do the little things right, and they would do them right every time. Working primarily by himself in the early days, Franklin coached in stations; each player would bunt, hit, throw, catch, steal bases, and then repeat. Franklin's teams would respect the game and respect their school: Wolverines wore uniforms properly, paid participation fees on time, and passed their classes.
Most importantly, Simeon players would be tough. Franklin taught them to always face a high-pressure moment head-on. "He always talked about being scared and wanting to be in that situation and excel in that situation," Kevin Coe, a 1993 graduate, recalls. "He was never satisfied."
These days, Franklin's approach is invariably described as "old-school." Back in the 1980s, working alongside legendary Simeon disciplinarians Bob Hambric (basketball) and Alvin Scott (football), he fit right in. "He'd get on us about everything and anything," says Robert Fletcher, who graduated from Simeon in 1992 and has worked as an assistant coach at the school, off and on, since 1997. "He wanted perfection."
More often than not, his players delivered. Since 1981, when Franklin was promoted to varsity, Simeon has captured seven city titles and finished second in eight additional seasons. His initial win, in 1983, was the first for a black manager and his school's first in any sport. (They've done fine on the hardwood since, taking home seven state titles—six of them in the last eight seasons.) Franklin remembers his initial triumph vividly: "I was in another world, you know? The principal just stopped everything, and all the television channels were here, and the mayor was here."
"The students lost their minds," recalls Wesley Chamberlain, a 1984 graduate who would eventually play six years in the major leagues. "These dudes went crazy!"
The Wolverines have finished fourth in the state tournament three times, in 1983, 1990, and 1998. (In their last appearance downstate, Simeon led undefeated Edwardsville—the eventual champion—1-0 through the fifth inning of the semifinals before letting in four unanswered runs.) Twenty-six of Franklin's players have been selected in Major League Baseball's amateur draft, more than any other high school in Illinois. Over 100 have gone on to play college ball. Entering the 2013 season, Franklin had amassed 738 total varsity victories, good for fourth on the state's all-time win list, second among active managers. In 2006, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Harlan head coach Fullman, not one to bestow compliments on a rival, calls him a "trendsetter."
Despite the team's success, proper funding for the Wolverines has been hard to come by. In 1983, during Simeon's inaugural trip to the state finals in Springfield, the brakes on their rented bus went out three times, stranding the team on the side of a country road until the wee hours of the morning. Four years later, Franklin told the Reader's Steve Bogira that while he loved coaching, "the fund-raising is a headache." Like a lot of CPL managers, he still pays his assistants out of his own paycheck.
West Chatham Park, where the Wolverines play the majority of their home games, does not befit a perennial title contender, either. Four years ago, Mary Mitchell wrote a column in the Sun-Times prompting the Chicago Park District, which owns and maintains the land, to upgrade the battered playing surface. Though marginally improved now, it's still in fairly rough shape. The dugouts are barely big enough for T-ballers, and there's literally a hole, six inches deep and two feet in diameter, in the shallow outfield grass behind second base.
Franklin's health hasn't always cooperated, either. Twenty-two years ago, he suffered a cerebral aneurysm, which put him in a coma for two days and left him with a mild stutter. He had to sit out the 1991 season while recovering, though he made a habit of offering instructions from the stands. "I'm happy to be alive," he told the Tribune at the time, "and you know I'm still the boss."
Most challenging is Franklin's task, year in and year out, of getting kids to buy into his system, and to work hard at a sport for which fewer and fewer of their peers have any enthusiasm. "There's so much stuff going on [on the south side]," says Sean Duncan, president of Prep Baseball Report, an Illinois-based scouting service. "To build a program like he has is really impressive."
No relationship in Franklin's effort to assemble winning ball clubs has proven more fruitful than the one he formed with fellow Louisiana native Joseph Haley, founder of the nearby Jackie Robinson West Little League. Forty-two years ago, Haley, a CPS educator who passed away in 2005, moved his young family from the west side to Morgan Park, on the far-south side. While they watched baseball on television together one day, his young son Bill mentioned that he'd like to play. Roseland Little League, to the east, was an option, but Mt. Vernon Park, at 107th and Morgan, was just a block from their home. Haley had the summers and weekends off, and, as Bill says now, "was already connecting to the kids in the neighborhood because of his profession." Organizing a new league, in other words, seemed feasible. "It started up as one team, but it caught on pretty quickly," Bill Haley says. "And it became a staple institution in the community out here."
That's an understatement. Through the dedication of the Haleys, who in their free time have crisscrossed the working- and middle-class neighborhoods around the park to find trustworthy adult volunteers, Jackie Robinson West has become the most reliable incubator of baseball talent south of Madison Street. Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett is an alum, as are plenty of Simeon's past stars. They start young, with a T-ball program for four- and five-year-olds, and train seriously as adolescents. "The practices are intense," says Simeon athletic director Brock, whose son plays now, "and the type of athletes attracted to the program know what the expectations are." In 2011, the league's ten-year-old team won the Illinois state title, the latest addition to a trophy case that's stuffed with similar awards. Almost 400 kids, on 24 teams, are signed up to play this spring.
Simeon's spring roster is chock-full of ballplayers who started at Jackie Robinson West. Simeon athletes have also taken advantage of Amateur City Elite (ACE), an innovative program funded by the White Sox that gives skilled high schoolers the chance to play on the competitive (and expensive) summer travel baseball circuit against the top players in the region, free of charge. In its sixth year, and run by people with deep roots in Chicago baseball—like '93 Simeon grad Coe and Harlan head coach Fullman—ACE helps showcase potential draftees and college prospects whom, given CPL's dipping reputation nationally, scouts might otherwise overlook.
According to Prep Baseball Report president Duncan, Simeon has as much positional talent as any team in the state. "They have athletic ability," he says, "but they also have the baseball acumen to go around with it."
The Wolverines are particularly strong up the middle. Center fielder Ray, who will attend defending Big East champs Louisville this fall, anchors the outfield. Skinny up top but with legs like tree trunks, the 5'10" senior makes great reads on fly balls and hits line drives as consistently as any slugger in Illinois. "He's a complete player," says Dan McDonnell, Louisville's head coach. "He can defend, he can run, he has good instincts, [and] he can hit." The compact and quick second baseman, Ronnell Coleman, is the team's spark plug, one of those players you hate to compete against but love to have on your team. Nicknamed "Little Ro," the switch-hitter—who stands at just 5'5"—uses his height to his advantage, working deep counts and, with a green light from Franklin, stealing bases at will. He'll play for Southeastern Conference power Vanderbilt next season.
Franklin starts three more seniors slated to play Division I baseball in 2014—shortstop Marshawn Taylor (Eastern Illinois), third baseman Robert Fletcher Jr. (Alcorn State), and catcher/pitcher Elbert Dunnigan (Alcorn State)—along with junior Darius Day, a 6'0", 190-pound University of Arizona recruit. Day serves as the team's cleanup hitter and is a capable right fielder, but it's his left arm that Franklin values most; the ace of the pitching staff can run a fastball up into the upper 80s and shows solid command on both his curveball and changeup. In Simeon's most impressive win of the season, a 2-1 extra-inning victory on the road against highly ranked St. Laurence High School, Day was devastating on the mound, giving up just two hits in seven innings of work.
Behind Day, pitching depth is an issue. The team lost two formidable hurlers to graduation last year, and now features several who can look great one day and erratic the next. Robertson's start against Young is an instructive example. Against Marist High School, in a cold nonconference game in late March, Dunnigan entered a one-run game in the sixth inning and let in four, walking or hitting seven consecutive batters in the process. Simeon would eventually drop the contest 10-8. "We are right there," says Brock. "We just don't have the arms across the board."
In early May, the Wolverines will defend their 2012 city crown in the CPL playoffs. (Young and Clemente, another traditionally strong program, could challenge.) A deep run in the Class 4A state tournament, which kicks off on May 20, isn't out of the question, either. When the possibility is brought up in mid-April, it gives Franklin goose bumps. "It's tough," he says, "but winning one would just mean a whole lot."
Franklin has mellowed over the years, says Fletcher, the longtime assistant and former Simeon player. "He's older now," Fletcher says. "He's got a little more patience."
In a January interview, Franklin told local prep reporter Taylor Bell that he will stop coaching after the 2013 season. (He retired from teaching PE, after 34 years, in 2000.) It's a pronouncement he's made periodically since the early 1990s. His second wife, Henrietta, a retired schoolteacher whom he married in 1997, gets on him about spending too much time at the ballpark. Until he raises a state championship trophy in the air, though, that desire to compete is sure to nag at him. His love for south-side baseball, warts and all, runs deep.
Before the game against Young, the two umpires wander over to Franklin and ask about checks they are owed. "Shit," Franklin barks, in a tone that's mostly sarcastic but also a bit earnest, "all you guys want is the money!"
The manager fights his way through the Wolverines' cramped dugout, finds an envelope in his bag, and hands it over stiffly. The home plate umpire rolls his eyes and smiles. Franklin sits back down on his bucket of balls, fixes his eyes on the field, and readies himself for another game. v