When Kerry Cobb talks baseball, his pace quickens and his voice rises. Here calls his first hit in T-ball. He reminisces about controlling games from the mound. He admires baseball’s nuances and strategies and the tough-love lessons it teaches about failure and redemption.
“It’s a team sport first, but you have to understand your part, your duty, your assignment,” Cobb says. “That’s what sets it apart from all the other sports.”
Here’s the odd part: Cobb is a football guy. He was the captain of his high school baseball team in Jackson, Tenn., but football brought him to the University of Memphis. A four-year letterman, he played tight end in one of the UofM's most acclaimed victories — its 21-17 upset of the nationally-ranked Tennessee Volunteers in 1996.
Yet, this UofM graduate is using his lifelong passion for baseball as a conduit for improving the lives of the City of Memphis’ African-American youth. That passion for baseball is sincere, but so, too, is his desire to be a change agent in Memphis.
“In this city, when I go around and see what’s going on, (the kids) need mentoring. They need help,” Cobb says. “If you can use baseball as a tool to keep them motivated, to keep them off the street, that’s what comes first.”
Cobb’s tool is Memphis Little League, the nonprofit organization that in 2007 became a chartered member of Little League Baseball Inc., the renowned organization that operates youth baseball and softball leagues in all 50 states and more than 80 countries. When a previous City of Memphis administration eliminated Little League Baseball in a swath of budget cuts, Cobb decided to revive it and create opportunities for children who couldn’t afford the sport’s increasing reliance on expensive travel teams that showcase players and attract college scouts.
“At the time,” Cobb says, “baseball was pretty big in Memphis. But when that budget cut came, it just destroyed the model of inner-city baseball here.”
A key component of Cobb’s success is Little League Baseball’s Urban Initiative Program, which assists low-income communities by starting youth baseball and softball leagues, maintaining their facilities and acquiring equipment. The Urban Initiative Program, which began in 1999, now features 200 leagues in nearly 85 U.S. cities.
Almost 4,000 Memphis boys and girls have participated in Cobb’s leagues over the last decade. His goal this year is to enroll 350 boys and girls and field as many as 24 teams in four age groups. Memphis Little League plays at the city-owned Will Carruthers Baseball Complex on Neely Road in Whitehaven. Little League grants and other volunteers have helped Memphis Little League renovate the restrooms and concession stands, build clay mounds and fix the infields that had fallen into disrepair. Cobb dreams of a five-star complex where next year “you are going to see something special out there.”
Others say something special is already happening with Memphis Little League. In 2011, Little League Baseball and Softball named Cobb the Howard and Gail Paster Little League Urban Initiative Volunteer of the Year. Stephen D. Keener, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, said that year that Cobb “has built the Memphis Little League from the ground up in an area where baseball does not have a strong reputation. His commitment to the program and the children of Memphis has raised the awareness of baseball to the point where he has a league with several hundred participants.”
Through a management agreement with the city, Cobb and his team of volunteers are responsible for lining the Carruthers Complex’s five fields, cutting the grass, trimming the weeds and cleaning the grounds. That makes Cobb a mentor, entrepreneur, coach and groundskeeper. “If I’m not cutting grass, I’m probably coaching one of my teams,” says Cobb, who also owns a screen-printing and embroidery business, Christian Wear Apparel. “It’s a lot of stuff going on, but I’m at a point now where it’s close to reaching the vision. I can’t just stop here.”
There’s a story he tells that epitomizes that vision.
Last summer, Cobb took one of his teams to the Urban Initiative Program jamboree in Macon, Ga., nearly 500 miles from Memphis. Afterward, organizers rewarded the players with tickets to a Major League Baseball game in Atlanta, which confirmed Cobb’s belief that his decision to resurrect Little League Baseball in Memphis was correct.
“Just seeing how those kids reacted, it made an impression on them,” Cobb said. “They enjoyed themselves so much, there was no stress, they were just having a ball. The excitement on their faces made me feel like a little kid again.”
The success of Memphis Little League is a small chapter in the national story of African-American participation in baseball, a sport in which the modern era was built in part on the exploits of black players such as Jackie Robinson — who broke MLB’s color barrier — Larry Doby, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Don Newcombe, Frank Robinson, Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige. By the 1980s, many of the game’s best players were African-Americans: Darryl Strawberry, Rickey Henderson, Andre Dawson, Bo Jackson, Eric Davis, Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett and Tony Gwynn.
The game’s changing demographics, however, have been stark and obvious in the decades since. When Jackie Robinson retired in 1956, only 6.7 percent of MLB players were black. Last year, MLB’s official tabulation of black players on its rosters was just 8.4 percent.
University of Oklahoma two-sport star Kyler Murray, who is black, provided the latest example of baseball’s struggle with diversity. Murray, a quarterback, won the 2018 Heisman Trophy six months after the Oakland A’s selected him in the first round of the MLB draft. Murray decided in February he would play in the NFL, and was drafted No. 1 overall in late April, robbing baseball of a marketable and talented minority player.
None of that is lost on Cobb, who can rattle off a detailed list of explanations: the stardom and instant gratification available in the NBA and NFL, where players like former UofM football stars DeAngelo Williams and Anthony Miller don’t have to toil for years in the minor leagues; the expense of playing travel baseball and a decline in the quality of baseball coaching in inner-city America.
Cobb, though, sees opportunity, not a lost cause. He’s committed to his long-term vision, the City of Memphis and its youth.
“Right now, I have a job to do in this community, whether it’s restoring baseball fields, beginning more camps or whether it is helping kids off the right path get back on it,” he says. “The journey we have taken down this road, if it were football or basketball, we would be well ahead of the curve. But you have to sell the value of baseball.
“It has been a little tougher than I thought it would be, but we have more people now paying attention to what we are doing. We are seeing more people coming and wanting to be involved and saying, ‘How can we help?’ I didn’t imagine it was going to be this tough, but I’m not going to give up.”