HBCU Alumni Proud of National Spotlight
Marie Duval did not attend an HBCU; she received her educational experience at a predominately white institution, Mercer University, a private Baptist-supported school in Macon, Georgia, her hometown. The other half of the Duval family, Steve Duval, attended two HBCUs, Hampton University and Tuskegee University. The Duvals traveled 150 miles to witness a rare national spotlight shine on Black college baseball.
“I am excited to be here, Marie Duval said, then explained, “There are times I wish I had attended an HBCU. “I am rejoicing with my HBCU friends,” Marie Duval said.
“Every time I go to an HBCU event, I get caught up in the affair. There is always a different flavor to an HBCU gathering that you don’t get at PWI occasions,” she explained.
Emotions like Duval’s spilled over yesterday at Coolray Field, home of the Atlanta Braves National League Baseball Club’s triple-A affiliate, the Gwinnett Stripers, and host of the first Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic.
At noon on the second Sunday in March 2021, the doors opened at Coolray Field. A steady stream of fans filed through the gates, as they had done the two previous nights. They were mostly wearing paraphernalia bearing the nation’s top historically Black colleges and Universities like Morehouse, Clark-Atlanta University, Tuskegee University, Tennessee State University, Southern University, and Hampton University.
Families with children in tow, high school, and travel ball coaches, recent and not so recent HBCU alumni, and old Black men, including this writer, who had played collegiate baseball at an HBCU, came out to the classic.
The attendees sauntered into Coolray Field: Their eyes beaming, chests stuck out, attired in pandemic face masks which could not contain the smiles tucked away from public view. The fans’ locomotion strutted HBCU pride with a swagger seen every day on Black college campuses.
In a sense, they were coming to witness two of their member institutions, Grambling State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, square off in the first Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic, hosted by the Braves with support from Truist. In another sense, they came to express their pride in the HBCU culture conceived in the dark days following the emancipation of enslaved Africans to educate the children into the ways of free Americans.
“This is the first Black college baseball game I have attended. I grew up in California. We don’t have Black colleges out there.” said Bert Strane.
He is a former minor leaguer who volunteers his time and baseball knowledge to help the ATL METRO RBI program develop baseball skills and the fundamentals for Black and minority student-athletes’ academic success.
“It’s a wonderful thing to see HBCU baseball get some attention,” Ralph Garr said as the three-game series ended.
“My dad would be thrilled to see the Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic. I think he would be pleasantly surprised that the Atlanta Braves named a baseball classic in his honor,” Bill Lucas, Jr. said .
Like his dad, Bill Lucas, Jr., played baseball at FAMU. He was a hard-hitting, sure-handed shortstop who played several years in the Braves farm system before settling into a professional career in information technology.
“I hope other major league franchises will develop an HBCU Classic in their cities and that Black kids will want to play baseball at an HBCU,” said the proud HBCU alum.
Lucas played baseball between 1978 and 1983 said, “The only thing we had like this HBCU Classic was the Black college tournaments at Tuskegee.”
In the late 1970s, James Martin, Tuskegee’s head baseball coach, organized a round-robin tournament each year and invited the country’s top HBCU baseball programs to participate. He also asked a cadre of major league scouts to view the talent. It was an annual scouting event for the Braves’ player development director, Hank Aaron. He wanted to give Black college baseball players exposure.
Martin, in 1973, organized the only All-Star game in the history of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In those days, the conference champion did not receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Tuskegee’s 2–1 win in the All-Star game secured them an invitation to the NCAA Mid-Eastern Regional and made it the first HBCU to win an NCAA regional game.