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Little League Tournament Honors Man With Big Heart

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Two sisters in Leimert Park put together a small, heartfelt exhibition. Three hundred kids play in a baseball tournament on the Conrad Hilton Field at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. And a summer holiday weekend becomes a warm tribute to a man named Sammie Haynes, a man who died three years ago, a man who was blind in his eyes but who saw with his heart and who always loved the kids, baseball and the old Negro Leagues.

It is not always the big, fancy gestures that mean the most or make a difference. It is the single man in the neighborhood or two sisters joined by their love of history and their father.

Fred Thomas, a father and a baseball fan, is president of the South Los Angeles Martin Luther King Jr. Little League. The league is five years old. It was created, Thomas says, to show all the people who said youth baseball could never survive in neighborhoods ravaged by riots and crime, that, yes, people cared and inner city kids loved baseball.

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For three of those years Haynes would come to the field. He would talk to the kids, to the parents, to the umpires and coaches. He would tell stories of the old days when Haynes played for the Kansas City Monarchs, when he was a catcher for Satchel Paige.

Laura Hendrix and Marie Goree got to know Sammie Haynes because of their love of the Negro Leagues. Hendrix and Goree are two of the 12 children of the late Art Demery. Art was a pitcher for the Bakersfield Indians of the Negro League. Art used to tell his children tales of the old days. Two of his sons, Art Jr., and Larry, would go on to play major league baseball (Art Jr. for the Kansas City Royals and Larry for the Pittsburgh Pirates). Two of his daughters, Hendrix and Goree, have made it a hobby to collect the small pieces of history they can find of the Negro Leagues.

It was in this search for history that Goree met Haynes. Goree, who works for the Los Angeles Community College District, became Haynes’ assistant. She would drive him to speaking engagements, fly with him to Negro League reunions. Hendrix runs an art gallery, Gallery Plus. When Hendrix and Goree heard that Thomas was having a Memorial Day weekend Little League tournament named after Sammie Haynes, the sisters put together an exhibit of memorabilia.

The young baseball players came to opening night of the ‘Negro Leagues’ exhibit. They saw pictures of the old players, they saw the black and white photos of the rickety, yellow school buses Haynes and Demery used to travel on. They could see the spiffy, pointed-toe leather shoes and the tailored suits the players used to wear. They could touch the old traveling wardrobe, the suitcase with the little drawers and secret compartments where the players could pack for weeks on the bus.

After the trip to the gallery, it was off to play baseball.

This tournament, the Sammie Haynes Memorial, was a labor of love for Thomas and his wife Judith. Besides the games, Fred and Judith had an essay contest. The players wrote on the topic “What the Negro Leagues Meant to Baseball and our Society.”

“In today’s society, especially in South Central Los Angeles, as Little League Baseball players, my teammates and I are proud that we can still have the same WILL POWER and the HEART to BELIEVE just like the Black Baseball Players in the Negro League did. With a lot of hard work and faith we can do anything that our minds can see.”

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Johnathan Lowery wrote that. He is just a kid who comes to the Conrad Hilton Field as often as possible.

The field is impeccably groomed, taken care of by volunteers. Once in a while, Thomas and his crew must fight against vandals, neighborhood punks who find it cool to spray paint graffiti on the walls. Sometimes there is a fight with area soccer players who find the close-cut green grass the perfect place to set up impromptu games. These games, though, tear up the grass and Thomas believes so much that for these kids, in this city, it is important to give them pride.

“I want them to have nice uniforms and a nice field,” Thomas says. He is watching a tournament game. There are girls and boys playing together, Latino kids and African-American kids. There are some errors and not everybody knows what base to throw to. But there are umpires and announcers and scorekeepers. The kids see they are important.

Angelo and Janice Golden have their son, Angelo, playing in the game. Young Angelo wrote an essay about the Negro Leagues and has listened to stories about Sammie Haynes. “It’s good for him to learn about the players who came before,” Angelo, the dad, says. Golden umpires for the league. Sometimes he gets grief from other parents. “I just ask them if they want this job,” Golden says. “They shut up.”

Donald McKenzy, who comes to the game in a wheelchair because he has muscular dystrophy, watches his sons Jesse, 8, and Donald Jr., 15, play. He brings his nephews Christian Ross, 10, Trent Harris, 9, and Antwine Bowden, 11, to the games too. “Sammie Haynes used to come by all the time,” McKenzy says. “It was great for the kids to see that he cared and it’s great for the kids to learn about what the Negro League players did.”

Hendrix and Goree had planned to close their exhibit today after having a ceremony to give out the awards from the tournament. But interest has been high and they can’t help themselves. They want to keep telling the neighborhood kids and adults the stories their father told them. So the exhibit will stay open indefinitely. There is no charge. There are some great photos, a video, some artwork. And a lot of love of baseball.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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