PROVIDENCE – When Richard from Providence calls into the talk shows on WPRO-AM every now and then to weigh in on the issues of the day, he’s got a unique perspective to share.
He’s a Black man who grew up poor in Tennessee, joined the Marine Corps out of high school and stayed for two decades, and became a world class martial artist (tae kwon do) in the process. He’s not into labels, but he knows the audience leans conservative. He tends to preach personal responsibility, a theme he expands on in regular Facebook posts.
“I’m very open-minded because in my life, I’ve experienced both sides,” he says, reflecting on a childhood where remembers living in a nice home, and then seemingly overnight ended up in a low-income housing complex.
What the listeners to WPRO might not know is that Richard Hemphill runs the Silver Lake/Olneyville Little League in Providence, where he’s spent more than a decade supporting and inspiring mostly Black and brown children in the city. The boys and girls sign up each spring to play baseball, but they end up learning much more from Hemphill and his fellow coaches along the way.
Hemphill, 60, said he tries to create a family-friendly environment that involves teaching more than baseball, and he’s not afraid to publicly call out parents who use youth sports as a babysitter. While he does make sure to check on how the children – usually between the ages of 6 and 12 – are doing in school, he makes it clear that he expects parents and family members to chip in, at least by showing up and cheering for the kids.
“To me the environment is more important than the game,” Hemphill said.
Part of his passion for coaching and youth sports – he’s also coached football and basketball over the years – is that he sees a little bit of himself in so many Providence children.
Hemphill grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, one of 10 children. He remembers when his family moved to a lower income neighborhood, and says things started to fall apart between his mom and dad. He said he can remember days where he didn’t have much to eat, and he found himself working at a young age just to put food on the table.
But he found an ROTC program in high school, and then spent the next 20 years in the Marines. He’s traveled all over the world, and said that he always found ways to work with young people no matter where he was stationed. He said teaching American football to children in Guyana is one of his favorite memories.
While in the military, he took up tae kwon do, and ended up competing in the World Military Martial Arts Championships. He also helped demonstrate the sport at the Olympics.
After leaving the military in the early 1990s, Hemphill landed in Providence with his former wife, and hasn’t left. He took over as president of Silver Lake/Olneyville Little League in 2010, and has also been a coach, announcer, cheerleader, concession stand operator, and janitor — often at the same time.
When opposing teams from other Providence Little Leagues come Silver Lake, the players get the exciting experience of having their names announced, and the National Anthem is played. At the end of each season, Hemphill teaches all of his players how to fold an American flag.
While he’s teaching life lessons, he doesn’t hesitate to also show his competitive side.
He still thinks about a heartbreaking loss his boys major all-star team experienced against Cranston Western Little League in 2017, when a player from Silver Lake hit a homerun but picked up his bat rather than stepping on home plate. He was called out, and Cranston Western went on to win in extra innings.
“That team was the most talented team,” Hemphill recalls. “We could have gone all the way.”
Hemphill’s leadership has not gone unnoticed. Last year, about six weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the country, ultimately postponing Little League season, he was inducted into the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame by Mayor Jorge Elorza and City Council President Sabina Matos
But Hemphill isn’t looking for credit. He wants support for his league. Donations, volunteers, hot dogs. He said that he spends at least $5,000 a year of his own money to pay bills for the league. For fall ball in 2020, he spent even more.
“I hope the league grows,” Hemphill said. “I’ve wanted to step away, but I can’t. My heart won’t let me.”