HARLEM — When his oldest son turned 13 and wanted to start playing competitive baseball, Gregg Walker realized it was going to take a little ingenuity on his part.
There weren't many baseball field options in Harlem. The only regulation-sized grass field with the standard 90 feet between the base pads is located at Colonel Young Park on West 143rd Street and Lenox Avenue, and is in horrible condition after years of neglect.
Despite a Parks Department renovation a few years ago that fixed its lights and fences, the grass at the park remained pocked with dangerous holes on the mound and in the field of play. Football teams tear up the grass when using the field for running and training, adult leagues play softball there, and others use the space for frequent barbecues and leave their trash behind.
"There weren't a lot of places where high quality baseball was being played," said Walker, 40, a senior vice president at Sony, who helped create the Friends of Colonel Young Park with a goal of creating two or more first-class grass regulation-sized baseball fields at the central Harlem facility.
"Our goal was to not just do something decent. We wanted regulation fields that are the envy of all. People in Connecticut should be fighting to play our kids on these fields," added Walker, who founded the Black Yankees in 2006 to give kids in Harlem the chance to play competitive organized baseball.
The Parks Department agreed with the plan, said Walker, but said they did not have money in their budget to complete the necessary renovations. In order to construct and maintain the field, the group would need to raise $4 million, a tall order.
Three years later, the group has $2.75 million committed from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens and the city council's Black and Latino Caucus.
Now, a new exhibit at the Arts Horizons LeRoy Neiman Art Center is hoping to help the group add to that total and raise awareness for the cause. BLACKBALL: Illuminating Negro Leagues Baseball, an exhibit sponsored by the Abyssinian Development Corporation, is hosting a reception tonight.
It features artwork that honors the history of the black professional baseball leagues that existed as early as 1885 but mostly from 1920 to 1962. The goal is to connect Harlem's youth with that history while supporting an idea that will give kids a chance to play baseball on a top-quality field.
"Fewer and fewer black kids are playing baseball and we want to help change that," said Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society who helped conceive of the art show after hearing Walker speak about Colonel Young Park at a community board meeting.
According to research conducted by USA TODAY Sports, the percentage of African-American players in Major League Baseball at opening day this season was just 8 percent, down from 27 percent in 1975 and 19 percent in 1995.
Ten teams had just one African-American player on the roster at the start of the season and 25 percent of black players were on either the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Angels or the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But the number of African-American kids interested in baseball is on the decline amid a rising interest in basketball and football and a lack of college scholarships for baseball. Morris is betting that might change by educating African-Americans about their historical connection with baseball while providing an excellent place to play.
"After I heard (Walker) talk, I said, 'I can help you.' We can infuse history and art into the pitch for the ball field," added Morris. "There is a lot of Negro Leagues history in Harlem."
The New York Cuban Giants played many games at the old Polo Grounds stadium and entertainer and entrepreneur Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who lived at the Dunbar Apartments in Harlem, was half owner of the New York Black Yankees Negro Leagues team.
Baseball legend Willie Mays, who played with the Negro Leagues' Birmingham Barons, often played stickball with kids on 155th Street before games with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds.
Harlem was also home for many Negro Leagues players.
"Our mission here is to strengthen the community through art, so this fits into our model perfectly," said Misha McGlown, program director at the LeRoy Neiman Art Center and curator of the exhibit.
The exhibit features works from Neiman, Donald “Sunn” Anderson, Lou Grant, Charles Hearn, Rod Ivey, Kadir Nelson, Sherry Shine, Grace Y. Williams and Harlem artist George Nelson Preston.
Preston's conceptual piece titled "The Notebooks" depicts a baseball diamond surrounded by actual scouting reports from two great Negro League players and two Major League Baseball stars. The reports are used by teams to neutralize opposing players.
"In baseball you are trying to use treachery to defeat strength in some way. Negro League players such as Satchel Paige are great contributors to the psychology of modern baseball," said Preston.
"I'm trying to show the interface between the physical and mental side of the game."
Grant's work seeks to not depict any particular Negro Leagues players but invokes the feel of being at a game, while Ivey's work is reminiscent of baseball cards.
Neiman displayed an interest in depicting the black athlete throughout his lengthy career and Nelson's work often features children and a behind-the-scenes look at Negro League players.
Nelson's “Rube and the Giants” depicts a group of sharply dressed Negro Leagues players getting off of a train as children look on in admiration.
"His work shows that this was a serious enterprise. The whole industry was not a joke," McGlown said of Nelson's work.
It's a history that kids and adults in Harlem should know more about, said Walker.
"I had one kid say: 'Wow' when I explained that everything was owned by African Americans, from the teams to the stadiums, starting in the 1920s" said Walker. "These things have a big impact on how people view their community."
That's why the group hopes the exhibit will be the start of a final push to raise the $1.25 million necessary to complete and maintain the field as a resource for Harlem.
"More young people in Harlem would want to be involved with baseball if there is a beautiful field here," Walker said one recent evening after pitching balls to his 5-year-old son who was draped in a Derek Jeter Yankees jersey.
"This could be like the Yankee Stadium of youth baseball."
A reception for BLACKBALL: Illuminating Negro Leagues Baseball, will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, September 13 at the Arts Horizons LeRoy Neiman Art Center, located at 2785 Frederick Douglass Boulevard at 148th Street.