The school year is winding down across the United States. As pencils and notebooks are pushed aside, kids turn to their favorite summer activities: summer camp, swimming, late night reading, and little league baseball. In a little over two months, the Little League world will converge in Williamsport, Pennsylvania for its annual World Series. The stands will be packed, and kids appear as happy as ever to play America’s game. Five years ago, two stories took the Little League world by storm: pitcher Mo’ne Davis and the team from the south side of Chicago comprised of all African American players named Jackie Robinson West. Long time Chicago sports writer George Castle followed the JRW little leaguers that year and was compelled enough by their story to chronicle their championship season.
The south and west sides of Chicago are in the news on a regular basis for shootings, gang involvement, and other related stories. An outsider would think that once one left the city’s downtown, that the entire south and west side is one large grid of gang activity. In certain neighborhoods that may be the case, but the Mt Vernon neighborhood on the city’s south side was founded by middle class, two parent families looking to carve a safe space to raise their children. Castle interviews some of the original residents of Mt Vernon, a neighborhood comprised of stable family units, two parent working families, who desired the best for their children. During the late 1960s, white flight to the suburbs and housing discrimination against African Americans were normal occurrences in Chicago. Even star athletes on both Chicago baseball teams found it difficult to find housing outside of traditional black neighborhoods. Although well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Chicago was considered the most segregated city in America. Yet, in the 1970s, according to Castle, the hot button issue for African Americans was not gangs but the break down of the family due to the Aid for Dependent Children Act. In order to forge a sense of community and establish deep roots, the Mt Vernon residents started their own little league from the ground up.
In 1971 Bill Haley put down the roots for the Jackie Robinson West little league. With teams for boys ages 6 through high school and a minimal participation fee, there was a place on a team for every neighborhood boy who wanted to play. Girls could participate in the league as well as Haley issued them pompons and t-shirts and many rooted for their neighbors as cheer leaders. Games in Mt Vernon, later renamed Jackie Robinson, Park were community wide events as the whole neighborhood came to cheer on their boys. These were wholesome families; parents worked as nurses, teachers, police officers, and in various capacities for the city, and there was much parental involvement on most of the Little League teams. League alum David Harris, now an attorney in the Atlanta area, cites his years on Jackie Robinson West as molding his identity as a leader and team player. Harris lauds Bill Haley and Illinois senate leader Emil Jones as the builders of the league that played a role in generations of boys in the neighborhood. It was through this little league and all around community involvement, that families stayed in Mt Vernon as a safe place to raise new generations of ball players, cheerleaders, and wholesome kids.
As the 1980s moved into the 1990s and then the 2000s, less and less African American children turned to baseball. Sports had become a year round endeavor as kids began to specialize in one sport for the entire year rather than play seasonally. With high participation fees for travel leagues, many African American kids turned to football and basketball as their sport of choice. If parents did not want to risk their kids becoming a statistic by venturing outside to a park, kids stayed home and played video games. Baseball was becoming an afterthought, and Major League Baseball wanted to do something to boost African American participation. Their RBI program aimed at inner city baseball leagues, had opened some eyes, but going forward, many kids prefer other sports to baseball fans even if baseball may be a safer alternative to football. From the major leagues to little league, administrators looked for new ways to encourage African Americans to turn to baseball as their sport of choice.
The 2014 Jackie Robinson West Little League Team came along at a time when both little league participation and Chicago Major League Baseball was at an all time low. Yet, the team did the unthinkable: the boys made it all the way to the Little League World Series and then made it to the championship game. The boys known as JRW had won America’s hearts and become the feel good story of the year and more importantly increased exposure and television ratings. Yet, according to community members, JRW was not a Cinderella Story. The boys on the team came from two parent, middle class families, and both parents worked with their sons to mold them into top ballplayers, students, and leaders. Galvanized by the team, the community met for watch parties and the city finally had a baseball team to cheer about. Even in a summer with more gang shootings than ever, for two weeks the murder rate was down as people all across Chicago met to watch their boys compete for a title.
Five years later some members of the 2014 JRW team, now associated with Cal Ripken League, are finishing high school and eligible for major league baseball’s draft. With the draft this week, it will be interesting to see if some of the boys made it. In 2014, the Jackie Robinson West team was the feel good story of the summer. The boys were noticed by African American Major League ball players and the president of the United States. They made their community proud and allowed Chicago to be known for something positive. George Castle, a native Chicagoan, has done a fine job of documenting the Mt Vernon community and Jackie Robinson Little League as one built to last by community leaders and should be commended and used as an example by inner city communities across the United States.