Pittsburgh native Andy Blackwell—a man who, at first, was known as the “only Black guy on the team”—turned out to be the best guy on the team, and a Hall-of-Famer.
Gone are the days when 20 percent of the Major Leagues were filled with Black baseball players. And nowadays, it’s hard to find a baseball team of any level that’s even 10 percent Black.
But the baseball bug bit Blackwell as a kid, and it took him to his highest levels in the world of athletics.
“I found that I had the most success as a child in baseball,” Blackwell told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview. “Baseball was bigger in Black communities back then.”
Blackwell played in the late 1980s and early 1990s for in the Uptown Little League, winning championships in tournaments held in Brookline. “I had a lot of fun, winning, playing as a child in baseball.”
Blackwell remembers having a parade through the middle of the old Martin Luther King Jr. Field in the Hill District. It was there that he played for the Cardinals. “I was 8 years old…my first little league game I hit a home run, and I felt confident from there,” Blackwell recalled. “When I became 10, 11, 12 years old, teams didn’t want to pitch to me. I was just ahead, above kids at 10 years old when they were 12.”
Blackwell went on to star at quarterback for Westinghouse High School, while also starring in baseball and basketball. He graduated in 1997. Blackwell then spent time playing baseball for Garrett Community College (Md.), the Canton, Ohio Crocodiles, semi-pro team North Pittsburgh, and then for St. Johns Lefty’s Saints. With the St. Johns team, Blackwell won multiple local championships, made multiple trips to the semi-pro baseball World Series and won the National Amateur Baseball Federation (semi-pro) World Series in 2013 in Battle Creek, Michigan.
But Blackwell’s on-field successes didn’t come without some direct—and indirect—backlash.
“When I went to play professional baseball, it was like, ‘who are you?’ I was the only Black guy on the team, I had braids in my hair, other racist stuff I had to deal with,” Blackwell said about his time with some of the teams. “They were calling me Snoop Dogg, the coach didn’t think I could play, didn’t even put me in the game for three or four months. He had no conversation for me, but one day I got in the game and went 3-for-3, and I told him I could really play.”
Blackwell said he still didn’t get into the starting lineup, and he “was getting no fun out of sitting on the bench, and I knew the guys playing weren’t better than me.”
Better late than never, Blackwell eventually got his chance, and the rest is history.
“I was a center fielder, batted .400, and for 10 years of the league I led in runs scored and stolen bases. No hitting the ball to center field, everything was caught,” Blackwell said about his time with St. Johns, where he never experienced direct or indirect discrimination.
Blackwell was inducted into the semi-pro baseball Hall of Fame in Evansville, Indiana in 2014. He was among the youngest players ever selected to that Hall.
“It was a feeling of joy,” Blackwell told the Courier about his Hall of Fame selection. “When you play semi-pro, you feel like you’re playing for the love, and to actually get something out of it was pure joy. I made history and I was proud of myself.”
When you play semi-pro ball, said Blackwell’s coach, Tom McCarthy, “you love playing baseball. It’s not the easiest commitment, but the guys who have played for us, they still continue to be highly-dedicated to playing. They are the kids that are going to be there every night, and Andy was like that. You knew he would be there.”
McCarthy said Blackwell’s biggest talents were his “speed, hitting, defense…he had everything and every tool you would expect or want out of a player.”
Though Blackwell retired in 2015, McCarthy told the Courier he has been in talks with Blackwell about returning to the field if an age 28-and-up league is formed.
But for now, Blackwell is focused on getting today’s Black kids hip to the games they love—baseball, basketball, or football. Blackwell currently is a football coach for the Homewood Bulldogs (ages 13-14). “I think I have the skills, and I know what to teach the kids,” he said. “Teach them the proper skills and techniques and (make sure they) stick with it.
“Whatever you’re into, you do it all year long, and you’ll be the best. I want to just put the excitement back into our younger kids.”