It was a story that seemed to have fallen off Disney's PG-uplift assembly line: the all-black Jackie Robinson West team rose from the sadder part of Chicago to take the U.S. title in the 2014 Little League World Series. Even though they lost to South Korea, the Jackie Robinson West kids received a hero's welcome back home. It was good.
On Wednesday morning, in a story every bit as American but not nearly as uplifting, a fussy white man's point-of-order complaint about rules led Little League International to strip Jackie Robinson West of its title. Later in the day, photos of the team were expunged from the Little League World Series website.
JRW represented Illinois District 4, which sits entirely within the Chicago city limits. Chris Janes, vice president of the neighboring Evergreen Park Athletic Association, noticed suburban high schools and community leaders claiming the players during the team's Little League World Series run. And so Janes—a grown man with a family—got his Sherlock on and started pulling public data like voter records to get to the bottom of what was, apparently, a very important matter. Whatever he found was enough to convince Little League International to retroactively taint what was probably the highlight of every JRW player's life thus far.
After the news broke, the Chicago rapper and former Chicago Little League player The Boy Illinois took to Twitter to air his grievances. His rant covered the abject pettiness of taking the title away, but also filled in some historical background about what Little League Baseball is like, and what it means, in Chicago. I reached out, and he gave me a first-hand account of how city politics undermined his childhood league. He also gave a shockingly reasonable explanation of Janes's complaints.
What's the mood in Chicago right now?
Oh, everybody's pissed. That team brought something great to the city when everybody just wanted to come to us for negative press. We're such a city known for those same-aged kids being goons and thugs and villains, [then] we give people another image and now you want to take that away from us? And for them to do this during Black History Month is a slap in the face.
Tell me about your Little League experience.
I played from eight to 15, from about 1996 to 2002. We were in the south suburbs, Dolton, right outside of Chicago. At that time, we had one of the most prominent black urban baseball leagues. This is when a lot of black folks were starting to move into the suburbs. As it grew, everybody in the area—south suburbs, southside Chicago—everybody played for Dolton.
You even had kids from Jackie Robinson, because there were years that Jackie Robinson hardly had a league because they didn't have enough players. Players would come and play in our league. This would happen on the regular.
Some years they didn't even have enough kids to put a league together?
If you talk to anyone that played in the urban little league system, they'll tell you sometimes the other league didn't have enough players. When we put together traveling all-star teams, if we had not gone and got players from other places, we would never have the opportunity to even play in those games. There aren't that many people that have the interest to play baseball in the first place.
The complaint against Jackie Robinson West paints them as a superteam recruiting players from outside the league boundaries. So it's not like JRW was a powerhouse year after year?
Nah. Heck no.
Again, we were a league of 500 black youth. From ages 5-15. They tore down the fields we played on and slowly destroyed our league.
— Jackie Robinson West (@TheBoyIllinois) February 12, 2015
The vice president of Evergreen Park Little League blew the whistle. What is Evergreen Park like?
It's the complete opposite of [South Side] Chicago. Dolton is suburban but it's nothing but minorities. [Evergreen Park]…they have privilege. They don't understand where we're coming from, why we have players coming in from other places. I mean there's people that don't even drive through there because of the police and the presence of the people there. Chicago's a very segregated place!
How did race come up when you were playing?
I don't want to sound like a crybaby, but I was very good at baseball. I played on traveling teams all the time. And we'd go to these tournaments, there'd be a whole tournament and we'd be the only black team. We felt like we got cheated a lot.
On Twitter you mentioned your bats getting inspected.
Yeah everybody was really hitting home runs. I almost hit one but someone robbed me. So the other coaches said, "what the hell is going on, we have to check your bats." What the hell you gotta check our bats for? You suck, that's not our problem.
I talked to my Dad this morning, he had to remind me about all the times we got cheated downstate. There was a state championship game where they were just calling every kid safe. There was a game when I wasn't playing but my Dad was coaching, the umpire called a kid who hit a double out for being outside the batter's box.
So it wasn't as flagrant as having every bat inspected, but you just always felt like you guys had an uphill battle.
Yeah. And you would like to say it's not because of race but you look around and, like, if you're the only nerd in the room and people start doing something or feeling a certain way, you know that it's because you're the only nerd in the room. Nobody articulated that to us but we already knew that's what it was.
Tell me about what happened with Needles Park.
Needles Park is in Dolton and it used to have five baseball fields. We had tee-ball, baseball and women's softball. The mothers ran the concession stands and did the jerseys, the fathers were the coaches and they ran the league. Not only were the kids out the street but they had parenting. People that had nothing to do with baseball at all would come kick it, and you would have adult supervision.
Around 1999, the mayor of Dolton wanted to put a golf course where our baseball fields were. Eventually we couldn't fight them anymore and they tore down the fields. They were supposed to build a golf course but 16 years later there's still not a thing there. Anyways, so this is a league of 500 kids, they split us up into two different locations on different sides of town with two fields. We went from five fields to four. And at that point, as kids, we lost passion for the game.
[Ed: according to a note posted on TBI's father wrote on his Facebook page, the golf course was never going to happen because the fields were built on wetlands. Also, the Mayor allegedly bulldozed the pitchers' mounds so no baseball could be played during the dispute.]
How popular is baseball down there now compared to when you were coming up?
Not at all. And you can put that on the death of Needles Park, 100 percent. Even that area has gotten worse. Baseball used to be the most popular sport, it was more popular than football at the time. Once they took that away from us… there's some people I know that went on to play high school ball, but, I mean, I know people who if [Needles] was still around they wouldn't have ended up in jail because they would have had something constructive to do.
The crazy thing is one of the players [from Jackie Robinson West] was said to live in Dolton, the other two were in other south suburbs. Had Needles not been torn down, I bet all three would have played for Dolton All-Stars.