Hunter providing community, experiences through baseball
By Ethan Joyce
Sunday, July 31, 2016
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Rose Hunter drifts around the baseball field of Stith-Talbert Park.
She’s checking on the refreshments for the players and stopping to talk with friends accumulated throughout the years. This has become her daily summer routine. At 6:30 p.m., she finally takes a seat in the shade of the restroom-concession building.
Swatting away the gnats and sweltering in the heat, she focuses on a baseball game between two teams that compete in the Buck Leonard RBI baseball league, something she’s helped orchestrate for more than a decade.
“It is a joy, and it can take over your life,” Hunter said. “But I think it is a life well lived – doing things in your community that children seem to be excited by and benefit from it.”
Hunter, 74, is the executive director of the Buck Leonard Association for Sports and Human Enrichment Inc, which sponsors the league. It’s named after the former Negro League baseball player and Baseball Hall of Famer who grew up in Rocky Mount. He went on to play for the storied Homestead Grays. Leonard married Hunter’s mother in the 1970s after his playing career ended.
In 1999, after a career as a programs director in many counties, Hunter considered retirement. But she noticed that the inner city of Rocky Mount, where she grew up and lived, had little community activity for children.
She started the organization soon after, and it was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2003. The affiliation with Major League Baseball’s RBI program – an acronym that stands for “Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities” – seemed to be a perfect pairing for Hunter.
“For a community that has been neglected for so long, catching up, you are going to lose some generations,” Hunter said. “And that is a terrible thing to think about.
“But you have got to have some plan in place, a short term and long term, ready to go and begin to address some of the needs.”
That plan, at first, was to reach as many kids as she could. At its highest, the league contained 20 teams and 300 kids. But without the help of grant money, donations or volunteers, the organization couldn’t afford the expenses, specifically insurance for all the children.
This season, there are 10 teams for the summer season. Even though there are fewer baseball players, the need for support is prevalent. That makes it hard for Hunter to provide experiences.
Hunter has plans for a Washington, D.C. trip, consisting of a Nationals game and a tour around Capitol Hill. But again, that plan requires money and time.
“We don’t have time to promote what we are doing because we are so busy doing it,” Hunter said. “I think we could do that better to try to get more people to come in and support us so we can fund some of these other items to make it a real comprehensive [learning] program.”
While Hunter continues to search for more, she has a core group that’s been with the organization for many years.
On Thursday, as she prepped for the day’s slate, Hunter stopped to talk with one of the umpires, James Kearney. He’s coached, raised funds and planned for the league during the offseason since 2007. He helps with training camps. But when the league starts, he dons the umpire gear. That doesn’t affect the way the kids interact with him.
“The kids still call me Coach Jimmy,” Kearney said with a laugh. “Some of them say ‘Blue,’ but a lot of them say, ‘Hey Coach Jimmy, that was a bad call.’
“It has been good to see a lot of these kids transition from tee-ball up to our older divisions, and we’ve seen quite a few go on to play high school or even college ball.”
William Phillips was on the field Tuesday and Thursday coaching the Black Yankees. The team names are inspired by Negro League squads. Phillips works for the City or Rocky Mount during the day. This volunteer position is almost another full-time job, he said. The league drew him in while his stepson played, and now he can’t be without it.
“I take this true to heart, and I have been doing this for a long time,” Phillips said. “I go out of my own pockets from time to time to bear some of these expenses like buying the bats we are going to need.
“I’ve tried to walk away a couple times, just saying this was it and this is the last year, but I just can’t give up on the kids. A lot of them need that positive motivational speech, just that shoulder of a father figure to talk to. I don’t deal with them on a baseball level; I get close with a lot of them.”
As she sits watching on Tuesday, a kid walks up dribbling a basketball. He comes over and tells Hunter about a neighbor interested in playing. The gears start churning in Hunter’s mind.
Before she cracks a joke and sends her informant on his way, she’s already planned to get sign-up forms to her new player. She loves recruiting. When she refocuses on the game, swinging at the fluttering flies, she beams about another small progress in years of outreach.
“I like walking the beat, knocking on doors and talking to kids about baseball,” Hunter said. “We want this [baseball field] to be like a neon sign saying that we are here, here to work with you and with your children.”