By John Ruberry
This summer a wonderful story emerged from the South Side of Chicago, a part of the city which has gained international infamy for violence. The story was almost perfect. The Little League team from Jackie Robinson West Park, consisting entirely of African-Americans, became the Little League champions of the United States. They were runner-ups in the Little League World Series, falling to a South Korean team.
Baseball’s popularity among young blacks has been slipping since the 1970s. After a peak of 19 percent in 1986, the percentage of African-Americans playing Major League Baseball has dropped to 8 percent. The decline of organized inner-city youth baseball is certainly a factor in this athletic demographic shift.
Oh, one of the players for JRW, 12 year-old Jaheim Benton, was homeless. But after the Little League World Series, a donor gave his family a rent-free home for a year. The city held a victory parade for the team followed by a rally where Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn lauded their triumph. Jackie Robinson West met with President Obama at the White House. Chicago Magazine named JRW its Chicagoans of the Year.
On the their way to the Series, Jackie Robinson West crushed the local opposition, including a 43-2 stomping of the team from Evergreen Park, a predominantly white suburb near the territory of JRW.
But last week DNAinfo Chicago, in a detailed article, reported on the allegations from, Chris Janes, an official of the Evergreen Park team, that some of the JRW players didn’t live within the designated boundaries of its Little League territory. Bill Haley, the president of Jackie Robinson West, denies the allegations.
The evidence that Janes right is quite strong. US Rep. Robin Kelly Tweeted that three members of JRW lived in the suburban part of her Chicago area district. In its “Faces in the Crowd” feature, Sports Illustrated reported on another player who resided in the suburb of Homewood. Two other suburbs boasted of their own athlete on Jackie Robinson West, while other players lived outside of the JRW territory–but in the city, according to DNAinfo Chicago.
Little League International dismissed Janes’ charges that JRW was effectively a regional all-star team. Their response is that Jackie Robinson West provided the necessary documentation to prove residency for its players. However, for reasons that no one can explain, LLI doesn’t disclose the boundaries for each individual league. And some JRW parents counter their boys are from split families, with one parent residing within the league’s zone. But claiming residency in an area for the sole reason of being able to join a team is against LLI’s rules.
Local media has dutifully reported on Janes’ allegations, and JRW’s denial, but they haven’t delved into the the details of DNA Info Chicago’s story.
Perhaps they don’t want to dismantle that almost perfect story of black kids from a bad neighborhood becoming champions. Or maybe Chicago reporters are afraid of being labelled racist.
But if Jackie Robinson West did cheat, team officials should be held accountable and the JRW national championship should be revoked.
Little League is a big business, LLI has a $60 million TV contract with ESPN that runs through 2022.
Call me old-fashioned, but youth sports are supposed to build character and more. My oldest brother was a Little League coach in New England. While his team was being clobbered during a game, opposing players taunted his youngsters with derogatory chants. My brother objected to the other team’s coach, telling him, “Hey, isn’t this game supposed to be educational?” Well if it was that day, some boys were clearly learning the wrong lesson.
Putting ringers on a team is the wrong lesson too.