On Nov. 10, when the Vanderbilt Commodores host the Michigan Wolverines in a preseason exhibition, some may see it as a rematch of the 2019 College World Series. Others may point to the clash between Head Coach Tim Corbin and his former assistant Erik Bakich, now the Head Coach at Michigan, as the headline story.
But if you ask a member of either program, they’ll tell you something different. This day is far more meaningful than the game alone.
Corbin, Bakich, and the Negro League Baseball Museum have teamed up to pay homage to the late David Williams by tabbing this contest the “David Williams Fall Classic.” They will honor the trailblazing athletic director nearly a year after his passing by upholding his mission: promoting diversity and inclusion in collegiate athletics.
“As long as we remember David, he will never die,” Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro League Baseball Museum, told The Vanderbilt Hustler. “And I think that’s the goal for everyone involved with this inaugural classic. We’re making sure that the legacy of David Williams will play on long after David is gone, and we’re making sure we promote the very values he stood for.”
“Both rosters, comparingly so, are very similar,” Corbin said. “The thought processes of both programs is to integrate kids from all different parts of the country and all different backgrounds. Both Erik and I realize that in order for more kids to be inspired to play, they need to see more people like themselves. Young kids can and should look at the coaches and players in the college game and say, ‘This is something that’s going to inspire me to want to play. This will inspire me to try to get a college education because there’s people that look like me at this level.’ We simply want to amplify that message.”
Williams, the first African American Athletic Director in SEC history, passed away last February shortly after announcing he would step down as vice chancellor — when the powerhouse programs initially scheduled this game, Coach Corbin knew it would carry heavy implications.
“David was certainly a part of the push to get an MLB team in our city, plus, as you know, Eric has the Vanderbilt background and his program has a similar background to ours, so it just made a lot of sense to honor him this way. On this day, we can promote baseball on David’s behalf, while also supporting Negro League Baseball history on his behalf. There were just too many directional arrows heading towards making this event more than just a fall scrimmage.”
Bakich now has his own program in Ann Arbor, but he’ll never forget the impact that David had on the Vanderbilt program. In addition to creating an environment in which all athletes — regardless of their background, ethnicity or race — could feel comfortable, Williams worked tirelessly, around-the-clock, to satisfy the needs of all Commodore programs.
“One moment I will never forget that I think sort of represents just who David was, happened as we finalized our 2005 recruiting class. That class was ranked first in the country, but we had one problem: there was some hold up getting all the paperwork signed. I’m a young recruiting coordinator at the time, so I’m freaking out — we didn’t get the green light from then Chancellor Gee and then Provost Zeppos until the last night we could possibly send them out. We got in my car and absolutely bolted over to David Williams’ house at like 10 p.m. David opened his door and quite literally, welcomed us with open arms, invited us into his home, and comforted Corbin and I before handing over the paperwork. I’ll never forget about that, I was such a young recruiter and David didn’t have to stay after hours, didn’t have to welcome and comfort us, didn’t have to help us so much. But for David, it was never about what he had to do, it was about what he wanted to do — and he wanted to do things the right way.”
As a tribute to David Williams, Vanderbilt and Michigan will sport Negro Major League baseball uniforms, designed by Nike, to help uphold the deep history of Negro League baseball. Kendrick, the president of the Negro League Baseball Museum, was taken aback by Williams’ connection to the league and its history.
Nashville has its own rich tradition of Negro League baseball, so it’s only fitting for the Commodores to wear the uniforms of a former Negro League team, the Nashville Stars. Michigan is no different — their uniforms will represent the Detroit Stars.
“The Negro Leagues are such an important part of our history. It was part of the American dream, part of the American way, and part of what’s right,” Bakich said. “The fact that Michigan’s history with the Negro Leagues dating back to 1910, when our head baseball coach Branch Rickey got his law degree from Michigan, coached the baseball team for four years, and then embarked on a Hall of Fame career as a Major League General Manager means we have our little slice of history with the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey ended up signing Jackie Robinson in his tenure with the Dodgers, effectively breaking the color barrier. So our school has a massive connection with the history of Negro League Baseball and how important it was with the integration of all players being able to play Major League Baseball.”
On this day, fans will be able to attend the contest for free. Furthermore, by attending, they’ll be able to honor, remember, and uphold the very values for which David Williams stood.
“It’s not an indictment against the people of Detroit or Nashville to not know their city’s history as it pertains to black baseball,” Kendrick said. “But through efforts like this, we can help people gain an important perspective. In the process, they can promote baseball to people of color throughout the country — and I know that just the thought of sending that type of message would make David Williams smile from ear-to-ear.”