Some 300 miles away from Lawrenceville’s Coolray Field, a big board pays tribute to the baseball greats of Florida A&M’s past.

Players and fans are reminded of former Major League Baseball stars like Andre Dawson, Marquis Grissom and Vince Coleman as soon as they enter the Moore-Kittles Baseball Complex.

One person on that board, Bill Lucas, never made it to the big leagues. He is on it because of his front-office accomplishments. Before his sudden death in 1979, Lucas served as the Atlanta Braves’ vice president of player personnel, performing all the duties of a general manager.

Lucas, along with the late Hank Aaron, were smiling down on Coolray Field this weekend, former Braves star and current scout Ralph Garr said Sunday. The Braves hosted a three-game series between Florida A&M and Grambling State, both historically Black colleges and universities, in the inaugural HBCU Classic.

Lucas’s alma mater secured the series sweep over Garr’s alma mater, Grambling State, with a 10-8 victory Sunday. Chandellor Benton forced a fly out to end the game after Grambling State loaded the bases. The atmosphere was lively; young fans in Ronald Acuna and Freddie Freeman jerseys danced to songs the DJ played from a tent atop the first base dugout.

The HBCU Classic also offered the chance to teach players about the pioneers who came before them. Every week, Grambling State head coach James Cooper facilitates conversations with his players.

“We don’t always talk about balls and strikes and hit and runs.” said Cooper, who wears a Jackie Robinson jersey pin every game. “We try to get the guys to understand that the world is diverse. And not only is it diverse, it’s cruel at times. It’s a lot of ups and a lot of downs. But if you pay homage to the people that came before you, who made it a little bit easier for you to make a transition, then therefore the guys that come behind you, you got to expect them to show you that same respect.”

Caption
Grambling State infielder Caleb Clines is caught in a force out at second base by Florida A&M second baseman Octavien Moyer during the sixth inning of the HBCU Baseball Classic final Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Grambling State infielder Caleb Clines is caught in a force out at second base by Florida A&M second baseman Octavien Moyer during the sixth inning of the HBCU Baseball Classic final Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Grambling State infielder Caleb Clines is caught in a force out at second base by Florida A&M second baseman Octavien Moyer during the sixth inning of the HBCU Baseball Classic final Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Garr had the chance to pass on his own wisdom to players after being honored before Friday’s game. They were nice to Garr, one of their idols.

“It just makes me feel good all over,” Garr said. “But I’m sort of used to it, too.”

Garr reminded players of the past, and the players reminded Garr of just how different today’s world is. Baseball, and its players, have changed. Younger people’s access to information has made them smarter, Garr said.

The younger generation also is leading an HBCU renaissance amid a period of protests against racial injustice. About one-third of HBCUs have received record increases in applications and enrollment in recent years, according to Rutgers University.

In football, former Falcons and Braves star Deion Sanders has attracted more attention to HBCUs as a first-year coach at Jackson State. In basketball, Makur Maker became the first five-star recruit to commit to an HBCU in 40 years when he chose Howard University last July.

The trends in baseball aren’t as promising. Black participation in the sport at HBCUs has plummeted since the 1990s. In the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the percentage of Black players dropped from 86.5% in 1999-2000 to 45% today, the Undefeated reported. In the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the percentage dropped from 59% to 31% in the same time period. Most of Florida A&M’s starters Sunday were white.

Caption
Florida A&M players celebrate defeating Grambling State 10-8 in the HBCU Baseball Classic final Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. The Atlanta Braves hosted the inaugural Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic between two historically black colleges and universities in honor of the Braves greats and HBCU graduates. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Florida A&M players celebrate defeating Grambling State 10-8 in the HBCU Baseball Classic final Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. The Atlanta Braves hosted the inaugural  Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic between two historically black colleges and universities in honor of the Braves greats and HBCU graduates. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Florida A&M players celebrate defeating Grambling State 10-8 in the HBCU Baseball Classic final Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. The Atlanta Braves hosted the inaugural Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic between two historically black colleges and universities in honor of the Braves greats and HBCU graduates. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

The Braves are trying to boost Black participation in baseball. Ticket sales from the HBCU Classic benefit programs throughout the Southeast. In 2020, the Braves also launched the Restoring Glory Grants Program, which provides HBCUs with safe playing fields and equipment. Tuskegee University returned to their home field after an eight-year hiatus due in part to donations from the Braves and Coca-Cola.

Garr said he appreciates the Braves’ efforts. The sole mention of the Braves makes his smile wider and his blue eyes brighter. And even if not as many African-Americans are on HBCU rosters, the schools are great for anyone, Garr said.

Florida A&M coach Jamey Shouppe once made annual trips with his dad to watch Garr and his teammates play at Atlanta Stadium. He said the HBCU Classic could help introduce the game to more players in the Atlanta area.

“I hope it helps promote HBCU baseball,” Shouppe said. “The more and more that people start to notice HBCU baseball, they’ll realize it’s a great brand of baseball.”

About the Author

ajc.com

Editors' Picks