Ernest Bennett Jr. has had a decades-long love affair with baseball. As a child, he and his father, Ernest Bennett Sr. frequently made the 28-mile commute from their Pomfret, Md. home to Griffith Stadium in Northwest to watch Washington Senator baseball games.
Although Griffith Stadium closed its gates in 1961, Bennett's passion for the sport today still burns as intensely as it did nearly 50 years ago. He is still completely captivated by the artistry, simplicity and uncommon beauty of America's pastime.
"My father used to take me to games at old Griffith Stadium," recalled the 64-year-old Suitland, Md. resident. "I played baseball in high school and around the community. We would all get together and form teams and play hardball. I love the sport and I'm proud to be a fan of the Nationals organization."
Bennett, along with other members of the Rise Band & Show music group, performed last Thursday evening for Black Heritage Night festivities at Nationals Park in Southeast. Fans who braved the blistering 90-degree temperatures enjoyed more than the Nationals' 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
The gates at Nationals Park opened several hours prior to the start of Thursday's game to accommodate the steady stream of fans who trickled into the ballpark with cold bottles of water in hand and red and white Nationals gear to participate in festivities designed to boost African-American interest in the sport and to honor the legacy of African Americans who played the game.
Members of the KanKouran West African Dance Company, based in Southwest, greeted fans who entered the ballpark's centerfield gate. Unfazed by the heat, 11 KanKouran members – resplendent in West African attire – performed traditional West African dance routines accompanied by a cadre of drummers, as captivated fans gathered around to soak in the unique experience.
While the KanKouran ensemble enthralled its fans, eight members of the Rise Band & Show crooned the smooth sounds of Motown. They also performed popular jazz and funk selections at the baseball stadium's Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk. Fans took advantage of the Walk's shaded area and flopped down on couches and in chairs while Bennett and the band's other members jammed.
"I am little hoarse right now," joked Bennett, who stayed after the band's performance to watch the baseball game. "I've been playing for about an hour and a half."
The Nationals also paid tribute to D.C.'s Godfather of Go-Go, the late Chuck Brown, as images of the iconic music legend splashed across the stadium's massive 4,500-square-foot high-definition scoreboard while his signature music pumped loudly from the stadium's speakers and resonated throughout the 41,000-seat ballpark.
According to a study published in April by USA Today, African Americans make up just 8.05 percent of all players on Major League Baseball rosters, a sharp dip from 27 percent in 1975.
Young baseball players from local youth baseball leagues took to the field prior to the start of the game to take pictures and get coveted autographs from members of the Nationals as well as former Washington Redskins cornerback and National Football League Hall of Fame member Darrell Green, who threw the game's ceremonial first pitch. Edwin Jackson, a starting pitcher for the Nationals and the team's lone African-American player on its 40-man roster, stayed behind after batting practice to sign autographs and talk to his young admirers.
"It's imperative that we reach out on a personal level and interact with fans. There are a handful of us out there and until people realize that they have a chance to do something that not a lot of us are doing, they don't really have a true understanding of it," said Jackson, 28, who signed a one-year $11 million contract with the organization.
"To be able to come out on a night like this, the dedication to African Americans, is almost needed. The only way that we are going to continue to bring African-American youth into the game is to reach out and touch them on a personal level, interact with them and let them know that they do have a chance for opportunities and that it's not just with basketball and football."
Baseball purists and experts have posited any number of reasons for the decline with the lure of basketball and football siphoning off prospective baseball players.
Major League Baseball officials have used different instruments to ratchet up interest and cultivate the type of love baseball still engenders in Bennett and others like him. And former major league players such as Maury Wills and Joe Morgan have been cheerleaders for the game and involved in programs that they hope will draw more youngsters into the fold.
Pre-game festivities ended when nine Little League players took to the field and held the position of an assigned Nationals player who jogged onto the field and greeted them prior to the game's first pitch.
A Nationals' official said that it's important to honor and acknowledge African-Americans' contributions to the sport.
"The Washington Nationals host Black Heritage Night each year in order to highlight the achievements of African Americans in our region," said Israel Negron, Nationals senior director of community relations. "As the stewards of this great game here in the nation's capital, this is our way of paying tribute to and celebrating the diverse cultures that are part of our baseball community."