the people’s champs

Words: Dave Zirin

Photography: Brian Kelley

 

The Little League World Series that took place in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, during the long, hot August of 2014 was the most heavily covered in years. The two-week long, sixteen-team tournament featured both a transcendent star—Mo’Ne Davis of Philadelphia’s Mid-Atlantic team, the poised-as-steel 13-year-old who made the cover of Sports Illustrated—and an unexpected feel-good story about the ascension of Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West team, representing the Great Lakes region, who won the US Little League championship. It was little coincidence that the characters who attracted the most attention were African-American kids from inner city neighborhoods—a rarity in 21st-century baseball.

And it wasn’t just that they won, but how they did it, beating opponents and history. Davis was the first girl to pitch a shutout and earn a win in the 67 years of the Little League World Series. Jackie Robinson West, meanwhile, balanced great pitching and hitting from Joshua Houston and Pierce Jones, with an infectious team spirit that helped achieve two separate come-from-behind victories on their way to a 5-0 record in Williamsport, before falling gallantly to South Korea in the international final. After it was over, the city of Chicago threw the US champs a parade that ended with ticker-tape at Millennium Park. They even had their own celebratory trip to the White House, where President Obama praised them as a symbol of “hope, inspiration, and unity to their community.”

Then it all came crashing down—at least on the South Side of the Windy City, when on February 11, 2015, Little League International stripped Jackie Robinson West of the 2014 US World Series title for using “players who live outside the geographic area that the team represents.” The Jackie Robinson West Little League was placed on probation until its president and treasurer—Anne and Bill Haley, the widow and the son of the league’s celebrated founder—were replaced. The team manager was suspended, the local administrator was fired. In March, Little League International dissolved the entire six-team district that included JRW.

These rulings were a blow to everyone trying to keep urban baseball, a sense of community, and even public education alive in the cities of the United States. This story would read like scabrous satire from the pen of a writer whose DNA was part Runyon and part Baldwin if not for the fact that real children in the city of Chicago were victimized by this decision.

Jackie Robinson West was the first entirely black team to represent the United States in the Little League World Series. (And yes, stripping JRW of their title during Black History Month was tin-eared, at best.) But that insult shouldn’t blind us to the greater injury. Recall their damnable offense: Jackie Robinson West didn’t use 16-year-old ringers or cork their bats. They had players suit up who lived beyond the geographical boundary. The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape does not support baseball.

The New York Times reported that African-American players made up only 8.3% of Major Leaguers on 2014 opening-day rosters, down from 19% in 1986. And many of their dwindling number (like Curtis Granderson and Torii Hunter) come from American small towns and suburbs. This is because 21st-century cities have gentrified urban black baseball to death.

The public funds for the infrastructure that baseball demands simply do not exist. That’s what made JRW such a profound anomaly. In Chicago particularly, which under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has seen school closures and brutal cuts to physical education programs, their success made people believe that—with apologies to Tupac—flowers could in fact grow in concrete.

When asked to comment on the controversy, Chicago Teachers Union vice-president Jesse Sharkey said, “Mayor Emanuel closed half a dozen schools in Jackie Robinson West’s part of the city, and tried to close the school, Marcus Garvey, where the founder of JRW—Joe Haley—worked. Then Chicago Public Schools cut funding for high school freshman sports, laid off a thousand teachers.”

As for the Little League seizing JRW’s championship, Sharkey said he stands with the statement of Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who said, in part: “To strip Jackie Robinson West of its title nearly six months after securing the win tarnishes the efforts of our children who have dodged bullets, school closings, and reductions in their school athletic programs in order to compete and win on the playing field... I remain proud of our students securing their place in history as the first all-African-American Little League team to win the coveted Little League national championship. It is not lost on my community that they are named for a sports and civil rights icon that also had to break down barriers of racial hatred, segregation, and the one percent’s total disregard for his right to exist as a human being. Jackie Robinson West should retain its title, be issued an apology, and every player should receive full-ride scholarships for college sponsored by the people who have humiliated these boys, their families, and their community.”

But it is their community, and far too many other urban communities, that suffer from the absence of the infrastructure necessary to produce winning Little League baseball. JRW’s 2014 players came from families ranging from stable middle- and working-class homes to ones that suffer from poverty, evictions, and even homelessness. The team itself often had to practice outside its geographical league boundary, traveling to the distant suburbs just to find an acceptable field on which to play.

The opponents in JRW’s journey to become US champions were mostly suburban teams with resources and stability (like Nevada’s virtually all-white Mountain Ridge squad, who lost to JRW in a 7-5 thriller but were ultimately awarded the title after the Chicago team’s disqualification), creating this most un-level of playing fields.

Sports sociologist Harry Edwards (author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete) states that the inability of urban baseball to flourish should be seen as a canary in a coalmine, a warning about how inhospitable our cities have become for poor and working-class residents. US cities are either in a state of disinvestment or gentrification, with those in lower-income strata either ignored or pushed out by rising rents. Militarized police forces, such as what we saw in Ferguson, Missouri, become reminders of exactly which residents a city is there to serve, protect, and defend.

A baseball field then becomes either a symbol of urban neglect or a target of what has become the raw material of the 21st-century gold rush: urban real estate. Cities are, theoretically, melting pots that create a unified space, transcending divisions of race and class. But the truth is different. As the Brookings Institution reported in 2014, “US Census Bureau data confirm that, overall, big cities remain more unequal places by income than the rest of the country.” It also reported that, over the last 35 years, the wealthy in big cities have seen their incomes dramatically spike while those at the bottom have experienced stagnation.

The crisis in urban baseball has not escaped the attention of Major League Baseball, which has watched the number of African-American players plummet for a generation. For a decade, MLB has tried to stem that tide with a program called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI). Last fall, after the Jackie Robinson West miracle run, the Chicago Cubs donated $330,000 to refurbish the baseball diamonds of the South Side. But well-meaning gestures may amount only to a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. As Edwards said of such programs, “It’s like pumping air into the lungs of a dead man. He needs life; he doesn’t need air.”

Baseball will only truly revive in the inner cities if we confront inequality, and protect and defend public space and infrastructure. As long as urban areas are defined either by neglect or gentrification, inner-city baseball—along with the communities that can support the game—will die. Little League International chose to punish the children of Jackie Robinson West for trying to cobble together a team in the face of the profound social forces that are remaking our American cities. The team should be honored for succeeding in the face of these obstacles, not shamed.

This April, after 43 years as a chartered league, Jackie Robinson West dropped its affiliation with Little League, citing the “insensitive act,” and will be playing in the Cal Ripken Division of the Babe Ruth League this summer.

Jackie Robinson himself once commented, “I won’t ‘have it made’ until the most underprivileged Negro in Mississippi can live in equal dignity with anyone else in America.” Little League International separated the Jackie Robinson West athletes not only from their title but also from their dignity. It is beneath contempt. At a press conference held February 11, JRW player Brandon Green said, “We weren’t involved in anything that could have caused us to be stripped of our championship. But we know that we’re champions. Our fans know we’re champions. Our team’s parents know we’re champions. And Chicago knows we’re champions.” Damn right.

Parts of this article were previously published at TheNation.com.