Most folks by now know the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. That was in 1947.
Just one year later a San Diego native blazed another trail. Johnny Ritchey, who attended San Diego High School and San Diego State, became the first black player in Padres and Pacific Coast League history.
“It’s hard to overestimate what he had to overcome and overestimate his legacy because in the Spokanes and Portlands and Sacramentos he was the only black player on the field,” says Tom Seidler, Padres Sr. Vice President of Community and Military Affairs. “He was the target of racism and the one who had to put up with stuff singularly because there weren’t other African-Americans on the field.”
This was a decade before the Dodgers and Giants moved from New York to California so Ritchey integrated baseball for an entire coast. To honor that legacy the Padres started the Johnny Ritchey Breaking Barriers scholarship. The first recipient of the $5,000 award is, fittingly, another San Diego High School student.
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“It was such amount of money that I was like, oh my gosh I can’t believe I actually did it,” says Laila Williams, a senior at SDHS. “This was such a huge boost to my confidence and how excited I am to go to college.”
Ritchey’s legacy is perseverance and Williams is a model of that. She wrote her application essay about her life and did not hold anything back.
“When I was first born my mom lost her job so we had no home to go to so we moved in with my grandma,” says Williams. “Luckily, she had a back room for us so I just lived there my entire life while my mom was trying to get a job.”
Even with those efforts, her surroundings were not always great. But adversity only strengthened Laila’s resolve.
“Having aunts and uncles that were addicted to drugs and seeing that around me I always thought from a young age, if I don’t get this together and go to school and try my hardest I’m going to end up just like them and the cycle is just going to continue. So, from a young age I’ve always had this drive to do better. That way I can support my family when I become of age and give my mom a better life, despite not having a room to go to and do my homework in quiet. I always made sure that I worked through it no matter what.”
Her mother also persevered and found a job to get them by, while in the classroom Laila thrived. She earned a 4.3 GPA as a member of the MedTech Academy. Laila is going to U.C. Santa Cruz with hopes of giving herself … and many other people a better life.
“I’m studying neuroscience because I want to become a doctor, specifically an OB-GYN,” says Williams. “My mom finally got a job and she works with pregnant black women specifically, trying to get them resources. She told me how there are so many black women out there that have struggles with their pregnancies and giving birth so I looked into it. I found out there are five black OB-GYNs in San Diego County so there’s not a lot of people that look like us to help pertain to our needs specifically.”
Laila plays golf but she is a Padres fan. She went to games on field trips growing up and knows the history of Johnny Ritchey and Jackie Robinson. When the Friars heard her story they knew they’d found another special San Diegan.
“I’d put my money on her achieving good things,” says Seidler. “She seems to have the right toughness to get where she’s gotten so far and I think our $5,000 will be a good investment in her future.”
There’s one more recent development for Laila that many of us take for granted. She has her own room now.
“It was really exciting,” says Williams. “At first I was kind of like, what the heck? What do I really need of my own room? But now that I have it, it’s my own space. I can go here to do homework with no problem. I can type out a whole essay and have no issues. It’s just nice. It’s somewhere I can be me and express my own personality.”
And continue, as Johnny Ritchey did, thriving to make the world a better place. Laila was going to be honored at Petco Park on Jackie Robinson Day but with no game to play the team will try to hold the ceremony soon after the 2020 season returns.