As the news outlets and publications lend their speculation on why the famed Jackie Robinson West little league baseball team lost its national title, the Chicago African American community is very shaken by this sad news. More importantly, we feel the hurt and shock that these young players must be enduring. After all, they are not just players, but are also our children.
The term, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ is not merely an ancient African proverb; it has become a way of life over generations within the African American community. This was instilled in us as slave traders snatched babies from their young African mothers’ arms to be sold on the slave block and sent out to plantations only to find themselves living with other slave families. It took the entire clan of African slaves to come together and adopt lost children into their own makeshift families.
We have embedded this philosophy into our neighborhood culture. There was a time when people knew their neighbors and grew up with the kids on the block. Before the dismantling of schools and broken homes, a grandmother, auntie or uncle looked out for the kids playing on the street and immediately threatened to inform the kids’ parents of their disobedience when they were out of line. This was our village.
When we witnessed the triumphs of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team and the perseverance of the players whose determination to overcome so many social discords that young people face today, we cheered them on. Most of us were reminded of how important it was to be that village for our children.
That trust was shattered on February 11, through an official statement by the Little League International Charter/Tournament Committee announcing their ruling to strip JRW’s United States Championships and its Great Lakes Regional title. Prior to the announcement, the team was brought to the attention of the Little League Central Region staff in Indianapolis with concerns pertaining to players’ residences. The ruling was handed down that JRW managers had recruited players outside of their district and, therefore, the team was ruled ineligible based on the rules and regulations of the Little League International League.
One player lives in Dolton, IL and two other players attend school in South Holland, IL. These south suburban townships are approximately 2.5miles away from where the kids play ball.
In September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward), Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward) and Chicago Park District General Superintendent Michael Kelly announced the city will invest $6.5 million in the program that seeks to make baseball and softball more accessible to young southside residents. In view of the latest ruling of JRW’s title being stripped; Ald. Beale issued this statement, “I think it’s extremely unfortunate that the kids are being penalized for the adults’ actions.”
A major concern of many Chicagoans and especially those in the Black community has to do with how this ruling came down. Was it about the rules or was it about an opposing baseball team leader whose team lost dramatically to JRW with a score of 42-2? Chris Janes, vice president of the Evergreen Park Athletic Association, aggressively pursued Little League officials regarding the alleged ineligibility of some JRW players. Over the years, there has been speculation that teams in the league have had kids play outside their living areas. Was this particular team used as an example based on an adult not getting his way?
The big questions remain: Was the punishment of striping the national title too severe for JRW and why penalize the players who tirelessly worked hard to achieve such an amazing accomplishment? Had the JRW team players been White ball players from middle to upper-class backgrounds, would the outcome of this ruling been different?
Last week, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., Jackie Robinson West parents, Father Michael Pfleger and others held a rally and press conference to express their condemnation of the Little League International Committee’s decision. As a result, the parents and JRW baseball management have retained attorney Victor Henderson to represent them in pursuing legal action. No lawsuit has been filed yet as they are weighing various options.
The team’s manager, Darrold Butler, has been put on suspension by the International Little League, League President Bill Haley has been replaced and Illinois District 4 administrator, Michael Kelley has been removed from his position. The baseball team management and league officials were aware of the rules but somehow did not enforce them, ultimately placing the young players in the crossfire.
Feeling the impact of what this does emotionally for these kids, Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, felt compelled to chime in on President Obama’s behalf, “I think what the president would say is that — that, again, the actions of those adults does not in any way take away from the accomplishments of those young men who performed brilliantly on the baseball diamond on a pretty large stage.” The team’s trip to the White House, a hometown parade to rival any professional athletic team, support from the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs, media interviews, as well as numerous accolades and government resolutions all made the city proud.
The White Sox has been a longtime supporter of the team, donating $20,000 plus equipment and school supplies to the southside team. Kenny Williams, White Sox Executive Vice President, said, “The young men on Jackie Robinson West are absolutely champions. They played with heart on the field and brought people throughout the city and nation together to root for one singular cause. What happened this week cannot take away from what these kids accomplished for themselves on the field. At the end of the day, it’s about young kids who just wanted to play baseball.”
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis released a statement upon learning about the Little League’s decision, “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.”
We know the challenges involved in growing up in our society, as well as the challenges of growing up as a Black male. We are living in a city that has lost over 200,000 African American residents due to the demise of public housing, foreclosure and a recession that forced families to the suburbs seeking a better quality of life. Public housing vouchers are issued and used beyond Chicago, often pushing students into other school districts. Our village continues to be dismantled by the system that we no longer have trust in.
The harsh reality that not only the players of JRW had to learn, but every child hearing their story has to learn is that you must play by the rules that are put in place by the system. Maybe this particular system is not designed for the current times of our community.
Our village built great baseball players such as Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron among many other talents who played in the Negro Baseball League during the Jim Crow era. These same players were ground breakers and history makers, changing the face of professional baseball today. But it was the love and support of the Black community that recognized these players’ talent, took them in when White-owned hotels would not house them on their road travels, fed them when restaurants wouldn’t serve them and created a network among fellow Blacks that felt the responsibility to pull together and support these young men.
Where would the league be today without the talent of our young African American kids? Where would our kids be without our village?