Black Community Building Collective: Play Ball (Beyond Borders)!
The Black Community Building Collective is a coalition of 15 Black-led organizations brought together by United Way of King County to build relationships, form strategies that impact the Black community, and implement those strategies with United Way funding that cedes decision-making power to communities. The Collective launched in 2020 to invest $3 million in local, Black-led organizations. We’ve invested an additional $1.5 million in 2022 and we anticipate more funding in later years.
United Way features monthly spotlights of Collective members. As the area enjoys a rarity of baseball excitement in October, we’re spotlighting Baseball Beyond Borders, a Kent-based organization that provides baseball and softball access for communities of color. Launched in 2007 as Chaffey Baseball Inner-City, Baseball Beyond Borders helps improve students’ academic outcomes while expanding their social boundaries. We recently caught up with Baseball Beyond Boarders founder Bookie Gates, a former Seattle baseball standout and son of a baseball coach, to learn more.
United Way of King County: What are the origins of Baseball Beyond Borders?
Bookie Gates: This concept that we use with Baseball Beyond Borders, we consider it pain, passion and purpose. There was a pain in my life that I experienced as a kid, being displaced from my community and needing to play baseball and pursue my passions elsewhere. That pain included not being able to play in front of my family. But the greatest pain I experienced was coming back to my community and seeing my own peers, who didn’t have the same access, who fell victim to some of the societal norms that continue to take them away from community. That’s what drove me to identify an opportunity to come back and give back and provide baseball as a viable option. That launched the purpose of Baseball Beyond Borders.
I was born and raised in the Central District and played mostly on Garfield Playfield and occasionally at Judkins Park. We would also play at Colman Park. But baseball was a part of my life. And when that was taken away from me, in a sense of me not being able [to play] in my own community, that’s when that pain settled in. And it has been that passion that drove the purpose—and that led to experience that we’re all now able to see.
United Way of King County: How did you take Baseball Beyond Borders from that purpose to where it is today?
Bookie Gates: Building community, getting the right people around me, really sharing the vision. I’ve been getting others to fall in love with the idea and concept. And I’ve been continuously putting the dream out in front of the community. We really didn’t promote as much; it was just word of mouth, the ability to connect with families I went to school with, people I grew up with. We just said, “Hey, we know that baseball is part of our culture.” We see many of those who my father coached back in the day—their children are coming to our organization and playing and finding a sense of purpose through that process.
United Way of King County: What is the history of African American culture in baseball?
Bookie Gates: There is a rich history here. It all started back in the Negro Leagues. There was a West Coast Negro League and the Seattle Steelheads were birthed from that. There were many different organizations that came after that. And that’s when you saw the community thriving [around baseball]. Generations of Seattleites passed that down to their children. But then it got lost. Other sports and endeavors came in and took us away from that. But now we’re starting to find that revival take place and that’s what we ultimately desire to see. How do we preserve that cultural legacy?
United Way of King County: And how do you do that?
Bookie Gates: Accessibility is the number one thing. That is the advocacy that we continue to put forth. We want to make sure that the facilities and fields that we see every single day in our communities have a viable baseball or softball option. And we want to make sure that they’re creating inclusivity among the organizations that are there. This is not just what Baseball Beyond Borders can do; it’s what our overall community can do to make sure that our Little League, high schools or any other program offering baseball or softball is opening the doors and ensuring that African Americans have access to participate and play.
We want to make sure that the facilities and fields that we see every single day in our communities have a viable baseball or softball option.Bookie Gates, founder, Baseball Beyond Borders
United Way of King County: What age groups are you steering toward baseball and softball?
Bookie Gates: The way baseball is played, it’s difficult to start picking up a baseball or softball and bat once you get to high school. We have to find ways to get to our younger age demographic, and it starts at Tee-ball (ages 4 to 6). It’s not necessarily a matter of getting them the skills to develop and go out there and play but putting the game in front of them. It’s a socialized experience for a lot of them because it’s a mental game. You have to be able to talk and understand the concepts of the game to have the success you want to have.
United Way of King County: How many kids in your program come seeing baseball for the first time?
Bookie Gates: I would say close to 25 percent are seeing baseball for the first time or seeing it played on this type of level, with being given the skills and knowledge and the tools to be successful. We serve what we call a continuum of care. We look at a kid who is there for more socializing and recreation versus that kid who is also there for a competitive edge, looking to take their talents to Division 1 baseball or other levels of collegiate baseball or professional ranks.
United Way of King County: Have any of your participants transitioned to collegiate or pro baseball?
Bookie Gates: Yes, we’ve had student-athletes who have transitioned to collegiate baseball. We haven’t had any go on to play professional baseball, but they are still in pursuit of their dreams and passions. But our greatest success is not the ones that go on to play baseball but those who come back and give to community.
One example of that is Nelson Cooper, who was one of the first student-athletes who threw out a pitch for Baseball Beyond Borders in 2008. He graduated from Ballard High School and went on to North Carolina Central University. He moved on to the PNC corporate office in Pittsburgh, but he experienced the pain that I experienced years ago. There were no viable baseball options in Pittsburgh. He created his own baseball organization modeled after Baseball Beyond Borders; it’s called Pittsburgh Hardball Academy.
One of the full-circle moments in 2021 is that we took a team to the Reviving Ball in Inner Cities World Series in Vero Beach, FL. The first team we played against was from Pittsburgh; guess who was that coach? Nelson Cooper.
United Way of King County: Who won?
Bookie Gates: We won that game, but they gave us a challenge! That is what we live for, to see more Nelson Coopers impact community.