By Aaron Leibowitz
When Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West won the Little League World Series national title last August, their accomplishment was widely declared the feel-good story of the summer. The 11-to-13-year-olds had “defied the odds.” They were the first all-black team ever to win the U.S. championship, and that, we were told, was the victory in and of itself.
Jackie Robinson West became the poster children for the revival of baseball in black urban areas. The percentage of black players in Major League Baseball has drastically declined over the past 30 years, and that, we were told, is bad.
“They aren’t just celebrating the legacy of Jackie Robinson,” outgoing MLB commissioner Bud Selig said during the team’s magical run. “They are celebrating the legacy of what African-Americans have meant to baseball.”
But the historical roots of this feel-good story—and exactly what odds those boys defied—went mostly unspoken. More on that after a brief summary of how it all came crashing down.
On Wednesday, Little League baseball stripped Jackie Robinson West of its title. The team was found to have violated district zoning rules, essentially redrawing a map so they could include players from nearby suburbs on their roster. The leagues whose zones were infringed upon did not sign off on the changes.
This transgression came to light thanks to Chris Janes, the vice president of Evergreen Park Little League, which lost to JRW by a score of 43-2 in the sectional playoffs. After the LLWS concluded, Janes noticed media outlets and local politicians referring to the suburban hometowns and schools of some of the JRW players, and he made it his life’s work to take them down.
Janes scoured the public records of players’ families, and even though Little League International repeatedly said the case was closed, Janes kept on pushing. Eventually, Little League officials felt enough pressure to agree to meet with the leaders of JRW’s District 4. They concluded that the team had indeed submitted a redrawn map without receiving approval from other teams in the district. They decided JRW must vacate its wins from the regional and U.S. championships; they suspended team manager Darold Butler; and they removed Illinois District 4 Administrator Michael Kelley from his position.
That’s the relatively short version of a story that surfaced in mid-December and was reported almost exclusively by DNAinfo Chicago. For the full timeline of events and all the juicy details, click here.
Much of the written response to Wednesday’s news went something like this: ‘They cheated, they deserve to be punished, bummer for the kids, adults ruin everything.’ But to stop there is to trivialize a story with countless layers. To discuss the accusations levied against Jackie Robinson West without also discussing housing, segregation, and unequal access to resources in Chicago would be ahistorical. To talk about how the team cheated without also talking about all the ways in which they’ve been cheated would be disingenuous.
Jackie Robinson West was founded in 1971 by the late Joseph Haley. Black kids were not welcome on white teams in Chicago, and so, as 34th ward Alderman Carrie Austin explained, “they formed their own.” JRW has been a home for black ballplayers ever since; Chicago, meanwhile, remains deeply segregated, a product of housing discrimination.
As The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote last May: “Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago. Its mayors and aldermen razed neighborhoods and segregated public housing. Its businessmen lobbied for racial zoning. Its realtors block-busted whole neighborhoods, flipping them from black to white and then pocketing the profit. Its white citizens embraced racial covenants—in the ’50s, no city had more covenants in place than Chicago.”
Of course, it’s not cheating if you write the rules.
Today, residency remains a complex issue for the families of Jackie Robinson West. Some kids who grew up within JRW’s South Side boundaries have since moved to suburban areas, but they maintain loyalty to the team.
“If any black kid wants to play baseball, they use Jackie Robinson West because it has been around and it’s not going anywhere,” said Carton Hondras, whose son Trey joined JRW last year even though he attends school in suburban Homewood and lives in South Holland. “It’s like a tradition if you are from the city, whether you move out or not.”
It’s deeper than housing; the gutting of Little League programs has also left kids with limited options. Musician William Dalton took to Twitter on Wednesday to recount his experience playing Little League Baseball in suburban Dolton, Illinois—that is, until the league’s John W. Needles Park was destroyed in 1999 to make room for a proposed golf course, leaving almost 500 boys and girls with nowhere to play. (The golf course was never built.)
At least one of the players on the 2014 Jackie Robinson West team lives in Dolton, and it appears that several others would have fallen within the Dolton league’s boundaries were it still around.
“The only suburban Black Little League was Dolton,” wrote William Dalton’s father, Bill, who was a coach in the Dolton league, in a Facebook post his son shared. “Jackie Robinson Baseball League is the only viable black league in Chicagoland left.”
Similar stories can be heard in cities across America. “One casualty of the new urban-normal has been Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands,” Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote last August in a piece on JRW’s Cinderella story. “This period of decimation has been followed more recently by an era of gentrification … creating a twenty-first-century phenomenon: the suburbanization of poverty and dislocated ghetto sprawl. With these developments, baseball in urban communities has withered.”
Given past and ongoing events in Chicago, Jackie Robinson West’s mere existence—let alone its ability to win the U.S. championship—is something of a miracle. The league has provided a home for black ballplayers around the city, and in at least one case, it has literally helped put a roof over a kid’s head.
Now, JRW’s accomplishments—the feats of kids who were seemingly unaware that any rules were broken—have been wiped from the record books. Sure, the evidence suggests adults cheated. But to strip the team of its title over a redistricting violation, in a city that’s gotten away with a whole lot of racist redistricting, feels wrong. To have the decision stem from a witch hunt carried out by one man from a league that, not too long ago, likely would not have welcomed the JRW players, feels wrong. And to vilify Jackie Robinson West for breaking a rule without also acknowledging the league’s tremendous impact, in the face of so many barriers, feels wrong.
At the very least, let this heart-wrenching plot twist serve as a reminder that the obstacles faced by Jackie Robinson West were even greater than we were told. Whether it was a history of discrimination, or just some guy with a chip on his shoulder, the odds were—and are—stacked mighty high against a team of talented black kids from Chicago.