When black baseball was king

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

For decades, baseball was king among South Carolina’s black youth, and its black colleges were the beneficiaries.

The success of such schools dates to the early 1920s, when Antioch’s Charlie “Chino” Smith rose to fame in the Negro Leagues after being discovered at Benedict.

South Carolina State’s first baseball title came in 1923, when it won the Georgia-South Carolina Conference championship.

When the amateur draft was established in 1965, Benedict became the second college in the state to have a player drafted when the Cubs took Nathaniel Perkins in the 27th round. Clemson’s Rusty Adkins was drafted a round earlier.

South Carolina State had four players drafted, with none going lower than the ninth round. In 1975, Bulldogs Gene Richards and Willie Aikens were selected with the first two picks.

Paul Johnson was the first Bulldog to be drafted, going to the Dogers in the third round of the 1968 draft. Two years later, Thomas Hallums was selected by the Mets in the ninth round. The Bulldogs won Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles with each before moving to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and winning the 1973 title with then-sophomores Richards and Aikens.

The following year, Richards batted .414. Aikens led the Bulldogs with 12 home runs while batting .360. The duo was tearing up the Shenandoah Valley summer league when word came that the Bulldogs baseball program was no more, a casualty of Title IX.

Suddenly adrift, Richards put out feelers to Clemson and Virginia Tech. That winter, it took him less than 24 hours to sign with San Diego after the Padres made him the first overall pick. Aikens followed suit with the California Angels.

S.C. State’s loss had been Major League Baseball’s gain.

“Before I found out about the program, I was definitely going back to college that next year,” Richards said.

Black baseball in South Carolina never would be the same.

Reach Patrick Obley at (803) 771-8473.

Reprinted from The State Newspaper - http://www.thestate.com/sports/story/115295.html