By Matthew Ritchie
Deep on the South Side of Chicago, at the end of an impromptu intrasquad scrimmage for the Morgan Park High School Mustangs baseball team, head coach Ernest Radcliffe gathers his players into a circle off to the side. Before beginning his customary post-practice meeting, he asks them to bring their parents to the huddle for a moment. One by one, the adults abandon the safety of their warm cars on a brisk and gusty Saturday afternoon, lining up along the fence to hear the coach’s gospel.
Each attendee locks their eyes onto coach Radcliffe as his booming, raspy voice cuts through the wind. He uses this moment to explain the constraints the disastrous spring weather has placed on their season, forcing the team to possibly play five conference games in seven calendar days in the coming weeks. In a long-winded manner, Radcliffe says they all must be flexible and sacrifice as they gear up for the most important part of their schedule if they hope to repeat as city champions.
But in his 15th season as the Mustangs’ head coach, his true goal for the team remains the same. It supersedes the results in the scorebook at the end of the game.
“I want them to focus on their books and play each game like it’s their last, so they don’t have any regrets,” Radcliffe said. “It’s imperative that every kid that comes through Morgan Park gets the best coaching, discipline and become respectful young men as they move onto the next level, whatever that may be.”
Radcliffe’s message — focusing on building young men by sharing his love of baseball — has remained throughout his entire coaching career. His passion for the sport comes from his family. His uncle, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, was a legendary pitcher and catcher who played in the Negro Leagues from 1928 to 1946. Baseball was always a fixture in Ernest Radcliffe’s household growing up, as he received his own set of catcher’s gear at 5 years old.
His standing as an expert in the game, combined with his position at Morgan Park as a security officer, would have granted him automatic authority over his players. But Radcliffe doesn’t solely rule with an iron fist. Yes, he can be stern, like when he pauses practice to bark at a pair of middle infielders who confuse their base coverage assignments. But it comes from a place of love — he wants each player to perform to the highest ability at all times. For Radcliffe, that level of discipline on the field extends to life off the diamond.
“He teaches you a lot on the field, and off the field, he wants us to be better people in life in general,” junior outfielder and pitcher Kyle Hudson said. “As a person, he’s another father figure to me. He’ll always be someone to look up to. He’s funny, but he’ll get in your butt if you’re doing wrong. He’ll stay on you and won’t give up on you.”
Almost every player who comes in contact with coach Radcliffe mirrors these sentiments. During their four years in the Mustang program, they all can point to a way he’s changed their lives for the better.
“I’ve learned a lot from that man,” senior infielder Kendall Garland said. “In life, he taught me how to move around the city as a Black dude. You know, because it’s not easy for real. As a man and as a coach, he means everything to me. There ain’t nothing that he hasn’t done for me.”
For Radcliffe, the sport of baseball is a tool for shaping the lives of the young Black men who step onto his field. The effect of his work is massive. His staff is brimming with former players who return to help him continue his legacy as a leader of men. Last year, of the 11 seniors on his team, nine went on to play college baseball. The other two are working trade jobs. Every single one graduated from high school.
As always, Radcliffe’s on-field goal for the Mustangs is a city championship, followed by a state championship. He can recount each of his team’s close calls in an encyclopedic manner, rattling off city championships in 2014 and 2021 and numerous state tournament appearances with ease. But when the season ends, his true purpose for coaching continues — a purpose he views as more valuable than any other.
“When they leave our program, I want them prepared to enter college,” Radcliffe said. “I make sure all my players can get to college and follow through with their degrees. I try to stay with them all the way through, and I thank God for this tremendous opportunity.”