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I pulled up to the white stone building Milwaukee County Parks building on West Brown Street at the same point as a county worker, who began unloading some maintenance equipment out of his truck.
I asked him if I was in the right place to meet James Beckum.
He smiled and pointed across the street to the five baseball diamonds.
"He’s out on the fields. He’s the only 84-year-old out there."
Indeed he was.
When I walked up to Diamond 4, better known as Beckum Park – it’s what the scoreboard says after all – that lone 84-year-old was combing the infield dirt atop an orange Smithco tractor.
He wheeled it around to third – that little inside shoulder lean of a former ballplayer is still there, even on a tractor – and cut the engine.
A massive ring of keys hung off the waist of his dark Milwaukee County Parks jumpsuit, and his hands are thick and worn – to say the dirt of the Beckum-Stapleton Little League is under his fingernails is not a metaphor.
You can find Beckum – Mr. Beckum to everyone who knows him – at those fields on Brown Street all day. He walks the grounds, picking up loose papers, cutting the grass, working the infields.
"I’m a little fussy about my field," he said. "I think they should be in good shape for the kids. I look at my kids like the Milwaukee Brewers look at the Brewers. They ain’t gonna have no bad field for those guys, I’m not going to have no bad field for my guys."
The league, which serves children from tee ball through high school, stopped counting how many kids have passed through its dugouts at 10,000. Beckum proudly recalls alumni, from an NBA star like Devin Harris to the police officers, teachers, doctors and lawyers few would recognize.
"It’s a lot of joy to see that," he said. "It’s to keep the kids busy so they wouldn’t get into trouble, and I think it has been very successful that way."
Glenn Matthews is one such alumnus, and his son is one of many surrogate grandchildren (even great grandchildren) Beckum had seen come through. Matthews has volunteered alongside Beckum for nearly 20 years, and Beckum fondly calls him his "assistant executive director."
He’s seen first-hand the wide ranging impact Beckum has had, including former major leaguers seeing his Beckum-Stapleton shirt and asking how "Mr. Beckum is."
Because of Beckum’s impact, the league’s golden anniversary is especially important.
"To me, it’s significant," Matthews said. "To have a program here 50 years; the amount of people that have come through, that’s a lot of kids that have come through the program. That’s significant, especially in the inner city of Milwaukee. If you look around, this is the only black little league in the state. Madison doesn’t have one. Beloit doesn’t have one. Racine-Kenosha doesn’t have it. So it’s significant to give these kids an opportunity."
It begins with the man called Mr. Beckum, of course.
"To have somebody who is that compassionate and that committed; so meticulous and committed to doing things the right way – that alone – motivates you to support the effort," said Cecelia Gore of the Executive Director of the Brewers Community Foundation, Inc., which purchases uniforms for the teams and has funded a variety of clinics, scoreboards and other annual events.
"Then you have the countless children he works tirelessly to try to support and give an opportunity," she continued. "It’s just – you don’t want to call it rare, but it is rare – individuals that just has open arms and a level of compassion that is just highly notable."
But it’s what the former Negro League player has done, through baseball, in the heart of Milwaukee that has truly changed lives.
"He’s a community treasure," Gore said. "We know of all the individuals that are in leadership positions that went through his little league just had to benefit from that love and the caring that he provided."
The Beckum-Stapleton Little League has also long provided a haven for Milwaukee youth, a place where they can safely gather and learn a game that Beckum says is for the "long term," unlike higher impact sports such as football and basketball.
But, like the game of baseball in general, the little league has had its struggles attracting kids, especially in metropolitan areas.
To combat that, Major League Baseball has created programs to reach back into urban and foster a love for, and participation, in the game.
"We’ve done well; we need to do better," commissioner Bud Selig said last year during a promotional visit around the release of "42 – the Jackie Robinson Story" movie. "We’ve done well, given where we were 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago. We’ve done well but we need to do much better.
"I regard baseball as a social institution – there’s work to be done and we will do it."
Beckum agreed: "Mr. Selig is right. He’s 100 percent right. Some of the things he’s doing now, I thought should have been done a long time ago.
"That’s what we’re working on now, trying to get kids more into baseball. Baseball had died since the ‘60s, OK, especially guys who trying to make professional baseball. We’re trying to get kids to get back."
Gore shared a story about two young boys she saw outside of Beckum Park one afternoon.
One went up to the other, who was in full uniform, and asked "So you’re with the Brewers now?"
"Yeah. I’m with the Brewers."
"Oh, good. That’s cool."
It’s a lasting memory for her.
"I think this is a perfect example of how (the game) is interwoven into our broader culture," she said. "Fifty years of serving young people in this community, even though we’ve had challenges, one of the things Mr. Beckum has been able to do is pull a fairly diverse group of people not only to be a part of the league but to play on the fields and to play against the Beckum-Stapleton Little League or provide sponsorship. So he’s created that diversity that reflects what our community is, and should be, in all of those positive ways."
What the Beckum-Stapleton Little League needs now, however, is more active support from the business community – the outfield walls are bare of sponsors, despite a request of just $200-300 for signage – to help keep the league viable as a developmental outlet for young baseball players.
While the fields are open through October, so fall baseball is an option, the focus is on teaching the game and getting kids ready for more competitive leagues.
"We’re trying to change that mindset, at least here, to say we’re developing the kids here so they have those skills when they go to high school or all the other programs," Matthews said.
Beckum started the little league was still playing the game he loved for fun in the parks around Milwaukee. He was in his early 30s and figured he’d pass it off shortly thereafter. Instead, a jamboree celebrating its fifth decade of service will bring in dozens of teams from around the region to play one another, all on the five diamonds at James W. Beckum Park.
"I didn’t want to let the kids down," he said. "The kid’s got the place. They’re depending on me, and I didn’t want to let them down. That’s where I’m at now. They expect to see me."
They will, making sure the fields are ready.
"I love doing what I do," he said. "They show me a lot of love. They give me a lot of respect. That, to me, shows a lot. And how can you walk away? When you have someone showing you that kind of love and kindness, you don’t want to let them down. I don’t think they want to let me down."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.