At the beginning of this season, I went to a game in Miami on Jackie Robinson Day. I wrote a piece based on my observations at the game, sounding the alarm that there were not any African American players on the field, despite 42s on the back of every player in the game.
Something about the game that night felt wrong, and I tried to put my finger on what this meant for the future of the game. When Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in the 1940s, the game was leaps and bounds ahead of basketball and football, both in the minds of the general public and the kids who were the next generation of professional athletes. Talented athletes, of all backgrounds, looked to Jackie Robinson and picked up a glove, in the hopes of becoming the next one to star on the diamond.
Today, almost 70 years later, none of this is true anymore. Television has been very good for the NFL and NBA, and talented multi-sport athletes like Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Danny Ainge made their bones in sports other than baseball. A kid who wanted to “be like Mike” wore a Chicago Bulls jersey, not a Birmingham Barons one. And the kids on the playground — those who had talent and those who did not — found that pickup games with a ball and a hoop were much easier to come by than one requiring bases, bats and fielder’s gloves.
Colleges, which serve as the training ground for professional athletes in waiting, don’t help matters, either. Since football and basketball are the revenue-generating sports at nearly every major university, a kid who wants to play baseball after high school — assuming he learned how to play the game before then — often finds there are no scholarships available to him. Basketball and football can offer scholarships, so kids can show their stuff on the field or on the court, and then get drafted and play professionally. The deck is stacked against baseball and the kids who want to play it.
But none of this prevented a number of kids from the South Side of Chicago from lacing up cleats and learning how to play the game. They have a support network that teaches them the game and encourages them to follow in the path of their organization’s namesake, Jackie Robinson. They play the game not for the money or the notoriety, but for the love of the game that we all know is there. The success that has come their way serves as a powerful vindication of what Little League can provide.
Labor Day weekend was certainly a time that the Jackie Robinson West Little Leaguers from Chicago will never forget. Fresh from their U.S. national championship in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the team was welcomed home with a parade through Chicago on Wednesday, a tour of U.S. Cellular Field on Saturday, and a similar tour of Wrigley Field on Monday. Along the way, they received the type of attention that baseball players at that level don’t usually receive. This can only be a good thing, not only for these kids but for any others who might want to try their hand at the game in the years ahead.
Professional athletes from both teams have professed to being inspired by these kids and what they have achieved. And in all honesty, this is what the game needs to reach out the next generation of talent that is out there, just waiting to be discovered.
The game’s future has received quite a boost from this collection of Chicago kids. Jackie Robinson would no doubt be pleased by this development.