Nationals celebrate Black Heritage Night

Nationals celebrate Black Heritage Night

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals celebrated the contributions of African-Americans to the game of baseball with Black Heritage Night on Friday. A multitude of pregame festivities and honors took place at Nationals Park to commemorate the event.

"It's a huge night here," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "In the capital of the United States, with a diverse demographic ... It's such a good cause to get our youth into playing baseball again."

Prior to his team's matchup against the Mets, Rizzo presented the inaugural Joe Black Award to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's (M-NCPPC) Department of Parks and Recreation-Prince George's County.

The award, accepted by M-NCPPC representative and former Major Leaguer Steven Carter, is given to an organization or person who is instrumental in promoting the game of baseball in Africa-American communities.

Joe Black was the first African-American to play for the Washington Senators, and he was in the Major Leagues for five years. He won the 1952 National League Rookie of the Year Award as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After his baseball career ended, he became a teacher in Plainfield, N.J., his hometown.

"To be honored for the Joe Black Award on Black Heritage Night means a lot to me," Carter said. "I'm a recipient myself [of] what Mr. Jackie Robinson and the other Negro League players did to pave the way. I'm very fortunate for that."

Carter said that the program has done a lot to promote baseball in the community in Prince George's County.

Through the program, more than 100 kids visited batting cages last month, and 200 more were taught the fundamentals of baseball at local clinics. The M-NCPPC's partnership with the Nationals also enabled more than 800 children to see a game at Nationals Park.

"We wanted a program that [affected] the community," Carter said. "We want to teach kids about the fundamental aspects of the game. Baseball is America's pastime. They are playing again, and we are very excited about that."

Rizzo worked with Black as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization in 1998. Black helped with community relations and was a regular in the Arizona dugout during batting practice.

Rizzo said that it means a lot to him, personally, to have the award named after Black.

"Joe [epitomizes] what hard work means in the world," Rizzo said. "He was teacher, mentor and role model to so many young kids not only in Washington, D.C., but around the country. There's a reason why he so highly respected in all of sports."

Black was also honored during a Friday-night edition of "Inside Pitch Live." Steven Michael Selzer, the author of "Meet the Real Joe Black: Baseball, Teaching, Business Giving," spoke with moderator Phil Wood on the life of Black and his contribution to society.

Black was Selzer's teacher and baseball coach in middle school. Selzer wrote the book because of the impact Black had on his life.

Selzer is glad that an award for community service has been named after his mentor.

"It's a beautiful thing," Selzer said. "He helped encourage the inner-city youth play baseball, which is a big problem. The life lessons he taught are still remembered and being used today."

Other pregame festivities included ceremonies in recognition of former Olympian Dominique Dawes, District councilmember Harry Thomas and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Nationals outfielder Willie Harris is glad the team honored the contributions of African-Americans in baseball.

"If you are talking about history, what African-Americans have done to the game of baseball, I'm very honored and grateful to people like Jackie Robinson," Harris said. "He's been my idol from the start. If there had been no Jackie Robinson, there wouldn't be a Ken Griffey or Hank Aaron.

"He paved the way for players like me."

Greg Rosenstein is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.