First Dayton keeps playing

By Marc Katz

If I told you Keith Byars, Jeff Graham and Michael McCray were all standout baseball players for First Dayton’s Little League, would you believe me? Or even remember?

All went on to play standout football at Ohio State, and Byars and Graham had pro careers as well. Except for injury, McCray may have joined them there.

Had football not blocked their paths, at least one of them (Byars) and maybe more, would have played professional baseball.

Had they come up today, Byars, Graham and McCray might not be playing too much baseball at all, even though First Dayton Little League remains as the oldest Little League organization in the area.

First Dayton’s roots were planted in 1951, when the Little League fields were on the site of where the old Kroger grocery used to operate, on Gettysburg and Oakridge.

Shortly after that, the Kettering family donated the land where four diamonds are now situated, on Crown Avenue, just off West Third Street.

While the fields are serviceable and there is hardly a spot of trash anywhere, they are not exactly playable, either.

And here comes the dilemma. Are there enough kids to play baseball, making it necessary to fix up those fields? We’re especially talking about African-American kids, who have seen their major league presence fall from a high of about 19 percent in 1975 to less than 9 percent today.

Multiple reasons for that include the proliferation of other sports and baseball’s reaching into the Caribbean—mostly the Dominican Republic and Venezuela—for more and cheaper players.

Anthony Graham, vice president of First Dayton and an assistant school principal, says about 125 kids signed up to play at various levels in the First Dayton organization this season, but insists, “Baseball is alive and well. I think we could get 2,000 boys from the Dayton school system to play.

I grew up in West Dayton in the 1960s, when baseball was the featured sport. There wasn’t an athlete in West Dayton who didn’t play baseball.

We had so many players, we didn’t have to play outside the park.”

The fields today are manicured by what Graham calls a 1954 tractor operated by volunteers, and others who lug over their own home lawn mowers.

Since First Dayton owns its own facility, no municipality takes care of it. The organization did receive some money from the Cincinnati Reds Community Fund, but obviously needs more.

First Dayton has to play most of its games at other parks and uses Kettering Field, as well.

Graham points out some of the additional problems are the result of specializing, where kids are hooked into a sport and play it year round. Byars recognized that when he played, from the late 1970s to the 1980s.

“I was more well-rounded,” Byars says. “When I was growing up, you played a couple of sports. You weren’t a real athlete until you played multiple sports.”

In addition to the football that made him famous, Byars also played baseball, basketball and ran track.

In addition to most of those sports going to year-round training, some of them naturally overlapped, such as track and baseball in the spring. At Roth High School, Byars had to work out schedules with coaches to participate in both. At Ohio State, he was going to play baseball, but that would have eliminated spring football practice, in which he was advised to participate. There were several schools that wanted Byars to play football and baseball, but Ohio State was loaded with running backs, and Byars didn’t take the chance of losing his position.

Even before that, he noticed his buddies gravitating toward football and basketball.

“Baseball lacks the sex appeal of other sports,” Byars says. That, and the number of games.

Youngsters can play as many as 100 games a season on AAU and travel teams.

“That’s a lot of baseball for a young kid to play,” says Byars, who was a left-handed-hitting center fielder.

Where are the African-Americans today?

“That’s a good question,” Byars says. “There’s not a quick answer.

“I was growing up in the ’70s, probably the golden era of baseball. We had teams with T-shirts in every color—yellow, black, blue, green, red, orange, silver. Every team had 13 kids on it. T-ball, coach-pitch, minors, majors and one big league travel team. We played 21 games during the regular season, then All-Stars. We won the state in 1979 when Youngstown Boardman came to Dayton with Bernie Kosar (who also eventually chose football over baseball).”

Byars says he could tell which of his Ohio State football teammates had a background in baseball, and which did not.

Those who didn’t couldn’t always track the flight of a football, the way a baseball outfielder is trained. He also says there are more openings in baseball than other sports because size doesn’t always matter.

“If you’re 5-foot-7, they’re not going to make a quarterback out of you,” Byars says. “You might not get to play basketball. In baseball, there are no measurables. Can you catch the ball? Can you run, and hit? I think we’ve got some Billy Hamiltons in Dayton, Ohio.”

Hamilton is the Reds’ centerfielder, who may be the best runner in baseball.

Ron Johnson is the president of First Dayton and is looking for volunteers. He could probably use some money, too. The fields on Crown Avenue aren’t quite ready, but they’re not a total wreck, either.

First Dayton has a Facebook page. Check it out.

Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at

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