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All Black Little League Team Wins Washington, D.C., Championship

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Look out, Nationals. Washington, D.C., has some new baseball champions.

(CHEERING)

CHANG: Those are the sounds of the Mamie Johnson Little League baseball team celebrating their win in the city's Little League championship on Tuesday. Just three years ago, the nearly all African-American team did not even exist, and many of its players had never played the sport at all.

Keith Barnes founded the league in an underdeveloped part of the city just four years ago, and he is with us now. Hey. Congratulations.

KEITH BARNES: Hey, Ailsa. How are you?

CHANG: I'm great. You're probably even better.

BARNES: Yeah, we're having a great time.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BARNES: We're having a great time.

CHANG: Now, I understand you grew up playing baseball. You played in high school. You played in college. Tell me what inspired you to create this league in the first place.

BARNES: You know, when you read articles about African-Americans not playing baseball...

CHANG: Yeah.

BARNES: You know, I just got tired of basically reading that, and I just wanted to do something about it. So I started the league in Southeast D.C.

CHANG: But at the time, the majority of kids who lived in Southeast D.C. - I mean, baseball just wasn't a very popular sport. So how did you make it more popular? How did you persuade kids to be interested?

BARNES: That was hard because football and basketball is really big in Southeast. So just trying to convince them and convince the parents to try a different sport - let's try something different. And I promised them baseball would be fun.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BARNES: You know, it may not seem like it, but baseball is a really fun game. You know, if you stick with it, it'll be fun. So we went to the rec centers. We went to the schools. We talked to kids. We just beat the pavement. And we started out the first year with 120 kids.

CHANG: Wow. And now how big is it?

BARNES: So we're up to over 300 kids.

CHANG: That's excellent. You know, people point out how the percentage of black players in baseball has been falling over the years. You pointed that out yourself. Why do you think African-Americans haven't been as into baseball as they've been into other sports?

BARNES: I think it's a multitude of reasons. You know, it's basically the popularity of basketball and football. And, two, baseball is a generational sport. Coming from myself, my father played. My uncles played. My older brothers played. And it was passed down. Another big reason is the cost of youth sports. Basketball - the only thing you need is a basketball, and you can go to a neighborhood hoop.

CHANG: Yeah.

BARNES: If kids just want to play pickup baseball game, you know, you need gloves. You need a bat. You need balls. You need a field - so just those challenges and basically also the cost of travel sports. And that's pricing a lot of kids out of just playing recreational sports.

CHANG: So do you think a victory like Mamie Johnson's could mean something different for the future of baseball?

BARNES: I think it could be huge for the future. I think it will bring attention to the game. I think it will help young kids basically want to play the game. They see kids that look like them play and be successful. I think it will inspire them to play. With us being able to offer baseball to them, I think that's a great thing.

CHANG: Keith Barnes is the president of the Mamie Johnson Little League. Thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations again.

BARNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.