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