CHAMPAIGN – Instead of practicing their swings, the baseball players were designing a remote-control car.
The First String Little League coaches had decided to give the players a break that rainy afternoon. A handful still showed up to the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club in Champaign to build a small, Jackie Robinson-themed car.
“They’re using servo motors, artificial intelligence, electrical engineering …” lists William Patterson, a University of Illinois music and engineering professor.
Patterson specializes in getting children interested in science, technology and math by applying it to what’s cool to them, from race cars to hip hop.
Patterson also helped found First String 29 years ago.
He says at that time, there were no Little Leagues that served the historically African-American neighborhoods in northern Champaign. Gang activity was starting to pick up at Douglass Park – something that didn’t happen when there were robust programs there when Patterson was little, he says. So he, Peter McFarland and others decided to create a new program.
Almost three decades later, kids can play multiple sports at First String and Douglass Park is once again a community center.
Shawn Green leads the First String baseball league. He says passersby often stay to watch the games at the baseball field in Champaign’s Douglass Park.
“We have one of the best concession stands in Champaign-Urbana. People come out for a meal, to get a Polish sausage. While they’re out there eating, they’ll watch the game. It’s like a big community picnic,” Green says.
Green says the average audience numbers about 100.
The league paused games during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and only continued last year at a smaller scale. Green is looking forward to showing his players the full joy of McFarland games this year.
Green himself is not originally from Champaign. He grew up in Kentucky, where he played baseball as the only Black kid on a white team.
Green got involved in First String 22 years ago when he signed his 4-year-old son up for the league. The organizers needed another coach and Green agreed.
Since then, Green has coached over 1,000 kids. He takes his role in their lives seriously and he encourages every player, no matter their skill level.
“You’d be surprised at the parents that come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for what you did for my kid. You gave them a shot in the arm. You made them feel good about themselves.’ Because some coaches, if you’re not any good, guess what? You can’t play,” Green says.
This year, Green took over leadership of First String’s baseball program. He aims to expand the mentorship side of the league.
Over 140 kids make up the First String baseball teams this season.
Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.