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How one urban youth baseball league succeeds

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On the morning of the day he leaves to watch his son’s all-star team play in a Little League tournament game, Bill Haley is doing two things at the Jackie Robinson West field on the south side of Chicago. One is keeping watch while a crew films a commercial for Harris Bank. “You’d think they were making Star Wars,” Haley says. The other is talking to me on the phone about how a normal thing for him and his league — African-American kids playing baseball — seems so unusual to most everyone else.

“I can understand why it’s news, but I don’t think it’s news,” Haley said.

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.

object022Jackie Robinson West’s second straight appearance in the Great Lakes Region final in Indianapolis, the last stop before South Williamsport, Pa., is a very big deal to Haley, but not for the reasons listed above. It’s a big deal because it’s his league — and his 12-year-old son, Adam — playing a big series. Black has nothing to do with it. For that matter, Jackie Robinson West’s playoff road is gravy to the real goal of the league, the stated goal of most local leagues — “give kids something to do, and provide an outlet for the adults.”

What makes Jackie Robinson West succeed as a league is the same as what makes any league succeed, no matter the players’ race, ethnicity or income status.

“It’s a combination of factors,” said Haley, a dispatcher for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Our league has a strong tradition. The coaches were once players. It’s taken hold in the community. You pull kids from a limited area, so there’s a sense of community to start out with. Being state champions (the league has won two Illinois championships in a row) is incidental to what we’re trying to do.”

The key, Haley said, is not the children. “It’s the adults. Baseball is a family game. It starts with just a dad playing catch with his kids. You’ve got a dad who hits pop flies on a Sunday. That’s where the connection comes in.

“That’s how it started for me.”

No surprise, because Haley’s father, Joseph, founded the Jackie Robinson West league in 1971. There was some sociological significance to that as well. In 1960, the Washington Heights neighborhood on Chicago’s south side was 88 percent white. Thanks to a decade of blockbusting, white flight and black emigration from other parts of the city and the South (Joseph Haley was from Louisiana), by 1970 the neighborhood was 75 percent black. (My suburb, Oak Lawn, had its big population boom in the 1960s thanks to white people fleeing Washington Heights and other south side areas that, as Chicago residents still diplomatically put it, were “changing.”) By putting the league together, Joseph Haley, who died four years ago, created a center for the mass of new arrivals in Washington Heights, not only a place to play baseball, but also a place for adults to meet and greet.

Like many neighborhoods and suburbs on Chicago’s south side, a lot of the people who now live in Washington Heights are people who grew up in Washington Heights. (My Oak Lawn is that way — my wife and I moved all over the country and ended up a mile from her childhood home. Like south siders say, they always come back.) Washington Heights is nearly 100 percent black. However, not all urban neighborhoods are created unequal. Washington Heights is a stable, working- to middle-class area where the likes of a Bill Haley are around and available.

It’s not just that there are fathers around. It’s that whole families and neighbors are invested in the league and its success. Washington Heights is not unique in Chicago — there are baseball leagues in neighborhoods on all sides of the area served by Jackie Robinson West. For any youth league of any kind in any area to survive and thrive, you need adults who are invested (hopefully in a productive way) in their children’s lives. You also need people who respect the league and its traditions. That’s easier to do when you have people like Haley, who played, and then coached (so does his brother). Haley’s 16-year-old daughter, once a Jackie Robinson West cheerleader, helps to coach the newest generation. The league has annual reunions of past players.

That’s not to say Washington Heights and all the kids at Jackie Robinson West are all about baseball. “What people don’t realize is the tremendous amount of energy and time that goes into basketball,” Haley said. “I can’t tell you how many kids we lose to basketball.” That’s become particularly acute since a few years back, thanks to the success of a recent graduate of the nearby high school, Simeon — the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose.

However, “we’re not in competition with basketball,” Haley said. The success of the older kids does help generate excitement in baseball, to be sure. “We’ve got a whole park of 7- to 10-year-olds watching these guys like they’re Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Milton Bradley.”

Some might read Haley’s naming of those three players as a way of holding up black role models in baseball (with Lee and Bradley among the relatively rare African-Americans in the majors). I tend to think of it as Haley not being a true south sider by rooting for the stinkin’ Cubs. Hey, if we want to talk African-American baseball role models, how about 2005 World Series MVP Jermaine Dye, or DeWayne Wise, who made the greatest catch ever to save a perfect game? Oh, did I mention I’m a White Sox fan by marriage?

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But I digress.

Speaking of major leaguers, Haley isn’t sure about the various MLB initiatives to goose African-American participation and big-league representation.

The success of “our league is simple. The commitment of the adults in the community. They believe this is important for the kids to have. Without that, if it’s not organically grown, [a league or initiative] is just a good idea. Time well tell whether they have any success. Though I’m always concerned when the forces behind something like this is not at the ground level.”

In its first game in Indianapolis Thursday night, Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West beat Columbus, Ind.’s Bartholomew County 4-2 in the Architecture Bowl. It has round-robin play this week before the championship round. If Jackie Robinson West keeps winning, you’re likely to hear more about how something so ordinary to Haley seems so extraordinary to others. The goal is no more high-minded than having a good baseball league that kids enjoy and parents support.

By the way, Harris Bank wasn’t filming a commercial at Jackie Robinson West as some sort of statement. It just liked the field.

Written by rkcookjr

August 7, 2009 at 6:23 pm