A taste of barnstorming life

The Anderson Monarchs get a feel for life in the old Negro Leagues, and it starts with a vintage 1947 bus, with no air conditioning.
The Anderson Monarchs get a feel for life in the old Negro Leagues, and it starts with a vintage 1947 bus, with no air conditioning. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

For S. Phila.'s Monarchs, it's a history tour as well as baseball games.

Posted: June 30, 2012

Steve Bandura was at the Monarchs' home diamond in South Philadelphia four hours before a recent doubleheader. He is meticulous and passionate about the field that his team plays on.

He fixed the outfield fence that was storm-damaged. He pushed a manual lawn mower across the grass; it looks funny, but it gives a neater cut. He lined foul territory with white chalk, following a thin strand out to the foul poles for accuracy.

"This is why I get frustrated when they don't come here ready to play," Bandura said. "A lot of people put in a lot of time."

Bandura, 55, is in the final preparations of a 22-day barnstorming trip with a team of 10- and 11-year-olds on a 1947 bus that has no air conditioner or toilet. It's the third time he's making a trip like this. Bandura maintains he's not crazy.

"It's such a great experience," he said. "I wish we were able to take every team on something like this."

Bandura, a jack-of-all-sports, created the Jackie Robinson Baseball League in 1993 as a way to give an underprivileged area the opportunity to play structured sports. Two years later, he created the Monarchs, a travel team of equally dedicated and talented young athletes willing to play three sports with the same team and the same coach from the time they are 6 to the time they head to high school.

Today, the Monarchs have teams and coaches for every age. But the fundamental values that began 19 years ago remain intact - players commit to playing baseball, basketball, and soccer, and they commit to each other as teammates for nearly a decade. The goal is to create a second family, tight-knit players who are constantly involved in something.

History lesson

Nineteen years after the team started, Bandura left Friday morning on his third barnstorming tour in the final chapter of a history lesson for his mostly African American team.

The Monarchs planned to stop at eight major-league ball parks, the original Field of Dreams, the Negro League Museum, the Louisville Slugger Museum, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the White House, and the Baseball Hall of Fame for the induction ceremony. They will stop in Brooklyn on Saturday to visit Jackie Robinson's grave site before heading to Yankee Stadium in the afternoon and a Little League game in Harlem at 5 p.m.

They are sleeping in hotels and then boarding the bus each morning for the next stop. Bandura has four parent-volunteers joining him.

The 16 players share a variety of stops that most excite them. Some want to meet professional players. Others anticipate All-Star Game festivities in Kansas City. Some just want to see what life is like west of Pennsylvania. But everything is connected to baseball.

Bandura started fielding this team when some of the current players were 3 years old and playing with Bandura's son Scott, who also is on the team. This is the first team Bandura has coached with his child on it.

Because Bandura fields the team as the players turn 6 and coaches them in three sports for nearly 10 years, talent takes a backseat to commitment and comprehension for him.

The Monarchs are almost never the biggest or most-skilled team. But they are almost always the most fundamentally sound.

"I can see it in their eyes even when they're hitting off a tee in baseball," Bandura said. "There's something about these guys that stands out."

Movie nights

The Monarchs have spent the last 23 Fridays together - sometimes on the baseball diamond, most of the time in a classroom inside the Rec Center.

Bandura uses the barnstorming experience to replicate the trips that players in the Negro Leagues once took, hence the bus from 1947, which is the year Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in the modern major leagues. For this team, it's often the first time they learn of the hardships that Robinson and other black baseball players suffered.

"It's been cool to learn about Jackie Robinson, especially since we're going to his grave site and going to see where he played," said Mo'ne Davis, the only girl on the team.

The Monarchs gathered on Fridays to watch Ken Burns' 18-hour documentary on the history of baseball and shared what Bandura described as mature conversations about race and the evolution of the game and the country.

"Even some of the ones who don't have the greatest attention span were very intrigued and wanted to know more," he said. "Because many African Americans grow up without the chance to play baseball, many think the interest isn't there. That's not true. [The] opportunity isn't there."

The bus

The 1947 Flxible Clipper bus has a flat front that leaves room for an Anderson Monarchs logo. The seats, two on each side of the aisle, are hard and rough. But its flaws are what make it unique - the perfect bus for these Monarchs.

The trip is meant to simulate the long trips that Negro League players experienced. The Monarchs, after all, are named after the old Kansas City Monarchs. So when Bandura learned that the 2012 All-Star Game would be in Kansas City, the idea clicked for a third trip. Bandura also took his 10- and 11-year-old Monarchs teams in 1997 and 2004.

On this trip, no electronics. That means no iPads or iPods, cell phones or video games. Players got their first chance to board the bus two weeks ago after an evening practice.

"It's cool," said Demetrius deRamus, still wearing his pin-striped jersey. "I think I'm going to spend most of the time looking out the window."

Fund-raising

Bandura spent a few years in marketing before coming to the Marian Anderson Rec Center in the late 1980s to teach boxing. The center is Bandura's full-time job. He can sweet-talk donors, but for something like this, he said, the cause is great enough that people are willing to donate.

Roughly $80,000 was needed for the trip - $20,000 went into fixing up the bus. Local businesses and even Major League Baseball contributed.

Bandura understands the importance of giving the players something tangible from the trip. A week ago, they walked a few blocks from the Monarchs' field at 18th and Fitzwater Streets to Mighty Writers, a nonprofit organization that teaches children and teenagers to write with clarity and confidence.

Each player was handed a notebook and given tips on how to keep a journal. When the trip is over, the journals will be made into a keepsake book.

As the players individually received writing advice, they were asked a few questions to be included in the book.

"What's the most important thing Coach Steve has taught you?" a staff member asked Jahil Hendricks.

He thought about the four years he's worked with Bandura and the five years still to come. Hendricks smiled.

"Don't knock over Coach Steve's coffee."


Watch videos of the barnstorming Monarchs baseball team at www.philly.com/monarchs

Also, view photo galleries and follow the series as The Inquirer travels with the 10- and 11-year-olds on part of their 22-day road trip.


Contact Chad Graff

at cgraff@philly.com

or 215-854-4550. Follow @ChadGraff on Twitter.

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