The scene looks almost as wholesome as a Norman Rockwell painting. Under a bright summer sky, children in baseball uniforms, with parents cheering them on, throw, catch, bat and yell encouragement in the traditional ways of the national pastime. But this is no small-town idyll on a grassy field. This is Harlem, and these kids are playing ball on a gritty sandlot that, the rest of the time, is the turf of crack dealers and junkies.
Harlem Little League baseball died in the early ’70s, a victim of apathy. Now, on the 50th anniversary of the National Little League, the Harlem division is back. Its field of dreams is the Charles Young playground, where every Saturday morning eight teams and 129 boys and girls, ages 8 to 12, play the game they love for four hours straight.
The angels behind this miracle are banker Dwight Raiford and his wife, Iris, who were goaded into action when their son, Joshua, 8, wanted to play ball and discovered there were no local leagues. He and his mom struck a deal: If she organized a league, he would practice the piano. Raiford got a charter from Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., and permission to use the playground from the New York City Parks Commission. Just as important, she organized parents and persuaded local businesses, churches and hospitals to be sponsors. The parents she enlisted are the league’s backbone. Every Saturday morning they sweep the field clear of the litter left by other park visitors—empty liquor bottles and crack vials. Their efforts have paid off. Says one proud mother: “I have to wake my kid up during the week, but on Saturdays he wakes me up.”
The revival of the Harlem Little League was recognized recently in a congratulatory note from President Bush. “Everything is different now,” says Iris Raiford. “People think we can solve our own problems instead of waiting for others to do something. It feels like we live in a small town now, instead of the tough New York streets.”