Jackie Robinson West: a tale of race, big money and a culture of ‘win at all costs’

Categories: The Guardian

Critics of Little League’s decision to vacate the team’s World Series wins argue that youth baseball’s high-stakes culture has invalidated any moral arguments

Mark Guarino in Chicago
Monday 16 February 2015 11.55 EST

The politics of race and corruption associated with Chicago over decades flared up last week, but in an unexpected place: Little League baseball.

The 13 members of Jackie Robinson West, a Little League team rooted in Chicago’s South Side, where the city’s violence problem and abject poverty are concentrated most, became national heroes in August when they won the US title at the Little League Baseball World Series, before losing to a team from South Korea in the final. They were honored with a downtown parade and rally, a visit to the White House with Barack Obama, a fellow Chicagoan, and cheerleading from media covering the globe.

However, allegations that adult officials stocked the team with ringers by redrawing maps and falsifying residency documents persisted. Last week, Little League officials announced that the organization was vacating the team’s wins, suspending team manager Darold Butler, firing Illinois District 4 administrator Michael Kelly and suspending all team activity until new leadership was in place. Worst of all for the team, their 2014 national title was handed to the runners-up, Mountain Ridge Little League of Las Vegas.

In a statement, Stephen Keener, Little League International president and chief executive, called the decision “heartbreaking”.

Jackie Robinson West is the first all-black team to win the US title at the Little League World Series. Some are saying that distinction is making them a target as other teams – largely white and located in outer suburbs – would not receive as much scrutiny.

The Rev Jesse Jackson held a press conference last week, where he called Little League’s decision “untimely and inappropriate”. He asked: “Is this about boundaries or race?”

Father Michael Pfleger, an activist Catholic priest on the South Side, agreed with Jackson, describing the league’s actions as “a witch-hunt”.

“I can’t help but wonder the question if the same thing would have been done with another team from another place, another race,” he said.

The Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, also jumped in. According to media reports, he called Keener to try to get the ruling overturned, saying the league had “turned [the kids] into the perpetrators when they are the victims”.

However, parents and team advocates did not address the issue and Victor Anderson, a civil rights attorney hired to represent the team, likewise kept mute, saying a lawsuit would only be plausible after a prolonged investigation of the evidence.

Eldon Ham, a Chicago sports attorney and author of Larceny and Old Leather, a study of corruption in baseball, says evidence of the district remapping is clear, but believes it is uncertain if team officials knew what they were doing was wrong. For him, that makes outcries of racism premature.

“Frankly, the greatest thing to happen to Little League ever was this Jackie Robinson team winning because it was one of the great national stories,” he said. “So I doubt if they wanted to unwind all that for some ulterior motive. It certainly is conceivable, but it would be a real shock.”

For others, race overrides everything else in this story because of what they see as ongoing segregation in youth sports – one reason why professional leagues like Major League Baseball are seeing falling numbers of black players. Black players represented 19% of the MLB in 1986 and just 8.5% in 2013, according to ESPN.

David Leonard, a professor of race studies at Washington State University in Pullman who often writes about the intersection of sports and race, said Little League’s strict boundary regulations were “just another form of red-lining”, because in some cases they forced players from poorer areas to compete against players from affluent areas without acknowledging the benefits enjoyed by the latter.

“People have this idea that this team ‘didn’t play by the rules and that they had an advantage’,” he said. “But what sort of advantage is there for teams in wealthy suburbs where parents hire private coaches and enroll them in sports camps? There is no level playing field.”

That sentiment was shared at a rally for the Jackie Robinson team held on Saturday at Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters in Chicago, where Jon Jackson, Jessie Jackson’s son, said South Side athletes lacked good housing, park district amenities and education opportunities.

“Our boundaries were blown by the city government,” he said. “This should be a trial about segregation.”

Leonard also says big money has invalidated moral arguments involving Little League, just as it has in college sports. In 2012, the league struck an eight-year, $76m deal with ESPN to televise tournament games. According to Sports Business Journal, corporate sponsorships from companies such as Honda, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and Gatorade account for 30% of the league’s revenue. That high-stakes culture has inevitably made the race to the top more prone to corruption.

“Maybe we should look at the culture we created that says ‘win at all costs’ and … have an honest conversation about the absence of a level playing field,” Leonard says. “To show up in the ninth inning to say Jackie Robinson West had an unfair advantage reflects a lack of nuance. What this is ultimately about is preserving the status quo.”

In Chicago, politics is never far behind. A late-summer rally by the team helped steer headlines away from street violence and mass school closings, two issues emanating from the South Side that have kept Emanuel on the defensive in his first term. Emanuel is up for re-election next week; last week he announced plans to present the team championship rings during a city council meeting in March.

But the fact remains that Jackie Robinson West is the third team to be stripped of its wins at the Little League World Series. (The first two were teams in the Philippines and the Bronx, in 1992 and 2011 respectively.) Even in those cases lie controversy.

“In each case they were teams of color,” Illinois state senator Jacqueline Collins told supporters on Saturday.

Whether or not a potential lawsuit reinstates the team’s title, Eldon Ham says nothing will rectify the blows ultimately suffered by young athletes in the league.

“If this team did consist of players who were illegal, that means everyone they beat didn’t get a fair shake and guess what? It also means the kids these ringers bumped off the team didn’t get a fair shake either,” he said.

“No matter what happens, someone gets hurt.”




Share this story on your favorite platform: