At age 12, Gary baseball star Lloyd McClendon stepped out on the field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and felt his world shake.
“We heard 45,000 fans shouting ‘USA, USA,’ and it was magical,” said McClendon on Tuesday as Major League Baseball’s Gary RBI Youth Baseball organization celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Anderson Little League’s runner-up finish in the 1971 Little League World Series.
McClendon, 63, electrified the Williamsport crowd, smacking five home runs in three games. He was intentionally walked in his other five plate appearances, but an instant legend was born. Even his idol, Mickey Mantle, gawked on TV over the feat.
It took nine innings for Taiwan to get past the Gary boys when its manager began walking McClendon after his first inning three-run homer.
Speaking at the Gary South Shore RailCats’ U.S. Steel Yard, McClendon said he knew it was an exciting time. Yet his team didn’t know it made history as the first all-Black team in the finals.
“At the time, we didn’t know what we were accomplishing, not only from the racial impact of being the first Black team, but the financial opportunities it created,” said McClendon, who earned a scholarship to Valparaiso University.
Some 51 years later, MLB, through its RBI Youth Baseball-Softball program, hopes to stir up excitement and passion for the game that’s evaporated in urban cities.
The Astros-Phillies World Series became the first one since 1950 with no U.S.-born Black players. Blacks made up just 7.2% of MLB players on Opening Day this year.
“That’s why we partner with Gary RBI — to change the narrative,” said Steve Smiegocki, senior coordinator for MLB baseball-softball development.
His department oversees the RBI or Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, that’s designed to reduce the impediments kids face in gaining access to equipment and adequate ball fields.
Smiegocki said MLB has 150 RBI affiliates across the U.S.
Steven Marcus, president and CEO of Gary RBI, said it’s received funding from the Home Field Advantage Foundation, a nonprofit sports leadership program since 2018 and participation in baseball and softball has steadily increased.
“Our goal is to develop a pipeline while exposing kids to career experiences closely aligned to the game,” he said.
Marcus said more than 500 kids have played in the newly formed Calumet Region Little League and about 200 kids have attended training programs.
State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, read a resolution he authored earlier this year, honoring the 1971 team.
“They were a source of pride … They didn’t really appreciate how important they were. They just wanted to play,” said Charbonneau, himself a die-hard baseball fan who unveiled his own Little League jersey from 1954.
Gary Health Commissioner Dr. Roland Walker, whose 15-year-old daughter Caitlyn plays softball, called baseball “a microcosm of life.”
He applauded the RBI Gary program for sparking interest.
“I’m glad to see it grow because we were watching it die. This makes a huge difference, not only in their skills but in their lives,” he said.
Wallace Johnson, a Roosevelt High teammate with McClendon, spent nine years playing for the Montreal Expos.
“I’m just here supporting those keep the dream alive with the Home Field Advantage behind the scenes work,” he said.
McClendon played in the big leagues with the Reds, Cubs and Pittsburgh, where he was a part of three consecutive National League East champions from 1990 to 1992.
This season, McClendon managed the Toledo Mud Hens, a Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t rehired, though, and he’s settled into retirement life in Valparaiso.
“The phone hasn’t rung,” he said.
He’ll never forget his legendary time in Williamsport.
“It changed my life. It put a stamp on what I was going to become,” he said.
Carole Carlson is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.