Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Race and baseball: the gravity-defying Little League dynasty of Jackie Robinson West

with 9 comments

If the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago makes it through the upcoming Great Lakes Region finals to the Little League World Series, it’s going to be the biggest story out of South Williamsport, Pa. Much bigger than the team’s previous LLWS appearance in 1983.

That’s because Jackie Robinson West is a team, and a league, comprised of a certain kind of person you don’t see in the major leagues as much as you used to. Look at the picture below and see if you can guess what kind of person that is.


In 1983, African-American representation was off its peak of the near 30 percent in the late 1970s, but it was still a lot higher than the 8.2 percent rate in 2007, the lowest since 1959, when Pumpsie Green’s debut with the Boston Red Sox integrated every major-league team.

That rate is up above 10 percent now, but baseball is in full throttle pushing programs to fight the decline of African-American representation. It has an Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., to give top inner-city players travel-ball-type exposure, runs an RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program to encourage urban kids to play ball and presents an annual Civil Rights Game (Chicago White Sox vs. Cincinnati was this year’s), all in an attempt to make the sport more relevant to a community that once embraced the sport so tightly, so much so that Jackie Robinson intergrating the majors in 1947 is as much or more a civil rights touchstone as an historic baseball event.

One place where inner city baseball has never died, and where these MLB programs aren’t necessary, is the Jackie Robinson West league, headquartered on the south side of Chicago. Founded by Joseph Haley in 1971, the league boasts about 500 players, ages 8-16. Its 11- and 12-year-olds (the pool for the Little League World Series) has been Illinois state champions two years running. The league has its own stadium. It alumni include major leaguers such as Emil Brown, Marcel Wynne and the late Kirby Puckett. It gets high-ranking guests at its annual parade.


Such as U.S. Senators/future presidents.

Theories abound as to why the decline in black players: more sport options, lack of fathers’ influence in largely single-parent communities, lack of money, and from Gary Sheffield, Latinos (whose representation rates have gone up at the same rate blacks’ have gone down) being “easier to control” than black players such as himself.

So how does the Jackie Robinson West league do it? I’ve made contact with Bill Haley, son of the league’s founder (who died at age 71 in 2005), to ask that very question. For instance, Haley, in an email to me, mentioned he has “some opinions on why [MLB inner-city baseball] initiatives have limited success and impact.” We’re going to try to talk early this week, before Jackie Robinson West opens Great Lakes Region play against Bartholomew County (Ind.) in Indianapolis. When we do, I’ll let you know the Jackie Robinson West secret.


Written by rkcookjr

August 2, 2009 at 11:08 am

9 Responses

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  1. I’m looking forward to what Bill Haley has to say about the success of his program. The problem though, is that the success of the Jackie Robinson program nonetheless, is exceptional, rather than being unremarkable (like baseball used to be in African-American communities like the one I grew up in on Long Island).

    This is not about race, as the majority of “Hispanic/Latino” ball players are of African descent. It is more about ethnic and nationality changes in baseball participation (prior to Jackie Robinson, Black “Latino” ball players were limited to the Negro Leagues, as well. Roberto Clemente considered himself a proud Puerto Rican and a “proud Black man.”).

    The father-angle is crucial. American Black baseball participatory decline begins in the mid 80s — right at the same time when the birthrate of African-American children to unmarried mothers rose above the tipping point of 50%. Urban communities aren’t dominated by “single-parent homes” — they are dominated by single-mother and single-grandmother headed households, a severe gender-disparity where adult male presence is marginal, at best.

    Baseball is a sport where the traditions of the game are passed usually by fathers: ask Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, Bump Wills, John Mayberry, Jr., Prince Fielder, Garry Matthews, Jr., etc.

    Bill Stephney

    August 3, 2009 at 6:14 pm

  2. I’ve got an appointment to talk to Bill Haley Wednesday morning, so I should have something up late that afternoon.

    Bob Cook

    August 3, 2009 at 9:21 pm

  3. Great. I’ll check back in on Wednesday. Here’s an interesting piece on the dilemma by author and Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal:

    Bill Stephney

    August 3, 2009 at 9:28 pm

  4. Thanks. I have the Baltimore Sun version of that piece linked above (behind “abound”), and I recognize one of the particular experts quoted in that story. 🙂

    Bob Cook

    August 3, 2009 at 9:51 pm

  5. Thanks, You were way ahead of me on the piece by M.A.N. I missed it because I only clicked on “Theories,” not “abound.”

    What I’m also interested in is your own sports dad/sports journalist story in the ‘burbs. Are you also a Little League coach? If so, what makes the youth baseball program that kids in the suburbs experience successful, versus the hurdles now faced by kids in urban areas?

    For full disclosure, I am now both a lacrosse dad (for a teen son…), and Little League traveling, all-star team dad (for a 10 year-old son…) — and we live in a predominantly-White, New Jersey suburb. I find the contrasts between suburban/urban environments just on this issue, incredibly fascinating.

    Bill Stephney

    August 4, 2009 at 7:57 am

  6. […] writer Bill Stephney and I were having a nice back-and-forth following my recent post about the Jackie Robinson West Little League team, a rare example of young, African-American baseball success (or even young, African-Americans […]

  7. […] In this previous piece on Jackie Robinson West, I talked about the long-term decline in the percentage of African-Americans in Major League Baseball, from about 30 percent in the late 1970s to around 10 percent now. I talked about how that has become a symbol of many blacks’ overall disengagement from the game, compared with earlier generations. And how an all-black team making the Little League World Series in 1983, as Jackie Robinson West did, is not big news, but that team making the LLWS this year could be a very big deal, given Major League Baseball’s greater sensitivity and awareness to its dwindling African-American base. […]

  8. […] West, founded by Haley’s father in 1971, has long been more than merely a baseball league. Joseph Haley founded it to unify the community after it flipped, within 10 years, from overwhelmingly white to […]

  9. […] West, founded by Haley’s father in 1971, has prolonged been some-more than merely a ball league. Joseph Haley founded it to harmonize a village after it flipped, within 10 years, from overwhelmingly white to […]

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