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Jackie Robinson West and the Gentrification of Little League

Their rise united baseball fans and Chicagoans; their fall from grace reveals deep divisions. They’re both important stories about sports and the city.

Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Few issues have divided the people whose work I follow more than the story of Jackie Robinson West. What had been, at the very least, a pleasant story about charming kids in a level of the sport that gets occasional attention beyond the parents involved, fell apart in an often heated argument about the significance of the team’s title being stripped.

I’m ambivalent about how much people should care about JRW, or whether they should care at all. But people cared; people care about sports, and they care about sports for many of the same reasons they care about books or movies or other simulacra of human experience. Obviously, you should be prepared for the possibility that anyone or everyone can let you down or break your heart, but people invest their emotions in sports for universally recognizable reasons. And when that investment is betrayed, it can get ugly.

As an example, take this piece by The Nation’s Dave Zirin: “Gentrification Is the Real Scandal Surrounding Jackie Robinson West:”

Recall their damnable offense: Jackie Robinson West didn’t use 16-year-old ringers or cork their bats. They had players suit up who lived “beyond their geographical boundary.” The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape supports baseball about as well as concrete makes proper soil for orchids…. Many of the few African-American players on Major League rosters actually come from the suburbs. This is because twenty-first-century neoliberal cities have gentrified urban black baseball to death. Boys and Girls Clubs have become bistros. Baseball fields are condos and in many cities, Little League is non-existent. The public funds for the infrastructure that baseball demands simply do not exist, but the land required for diamonds are the crown jewels of urban real estate. That’s what made JRW such a profound anomaly. In Chicago particularly, which under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has seen school closures and brutal cuts to physical education programs, their success made people believe that—with apologies to Tupac—flowers could in fact grow in concrete.

On first read, I thought that it implied that JRW’s territory is gentrifying. Which is, at best, a difficult argument to make. JRW’s boundaries cover a wide swath of the southwest side, roughly from McKinley Park near U.S. Cellular Field to Morgan Park on the far south side of the city. It runs through poor neighborhoods like West Englewood (median income: $26,564) and through old-suburban neighborhoods like Beverly ($83,092) and Morgan Park ($56,886).

And the kids on the team reflect this spectrum, as Bryan Smith found when he profiled the team for Chicago:

There’s no doubt that several of the players hail from rough neighborhoods. At one point, the team’s ace reliever, Marquis Jackson, acknowledged that a cousin of his had been shot while getting off a bus. The mother of another player, reserve outfielder Jaheim Benton, talked about how her family had been forced to live with a relative after her hours as a home-care provider were cut and Jaheim’s father could find only part-time work. In the media, that translated into “homeless.” (The story had one unquestionably positive impact: a Chicago funeral home owner paid a year’s rent for the family.)

But by and large, the familiar South Side narrative of broken homes and desperation bred of poverty is not the story of this team. Almost all of the players come from dual-parent homes. Most of their families are working class, their mothers and fathers employed in fields ranging from education (Ed Howard’s mother teaches language arts at a junior high in Dolton) to law enforcement (both of Pierce Jones’s parents work as officers for the Chicago Police Department).

Two Chicago cops can easily make six figures. A teacher in Dolton starts at around $40k a year, and can just crack $100,000 with an MA and at least 14 years of experience.

If you really want to be official about gentrification in JRW’s territory, a recent report from UIC’s Voorhees Center is a good start. The league’s boundaries encompass neighborhoods of extreme poverty, and neighborhoods of mild and serious decline, but not, by their terms, gentrifying neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods tend not to gentrify: “when they looked at those same areas [in Chicago] more recently, they found that in areas where the population was 40 percent black, that gentrification seemed to grind to a halt.”

JRW’s league boundaries cover a lot of ground, and can’t be generalized, but none of the neighborhoods it covers are hotbeds of gentrification. Daniel Kay Hertz, who writes frequently and well on Chicago through a sociological lens, wrote a piece saying as much:

I’ve had the opportunity to share my concerns with him, and his defense seems to be that, even if there are no signs of actual gentrification in the JRW neighborhoods—there is no new housing construction; in most places, average income is flat or falling; the white population remains essentially zero—this is just the prelude to a storm of Starbucks and yuppies. But this is wrong not just because the JRW neighborhoods are so far from the frontier of gentrification in Chicago that, even at the furious pace of change on the North Side, it would be generations before high-priced condos arrived.

Zirin, unfortunately, completely flipped out, calling the response a “grotesque distortion” and “unprincipled":

His entire piece is based around taking four sentences of my article entirely out context to accuse me of saying that the South Side is now—as we speak—in a state of gentrification, which I did not argue. This is all done to serve his greater purpose, to rail against “people who cannot discuss issues of urban inequality without using the lens of gentrification.”

Had Zirin not blown his stack, I think he could have clarified what is a legitimate point, and does have to do with gentrification, and even the “neoliberal city,” with regards to Little League. Call it the gentrification of baseball. It’s happening; people have noticed it; and even Major League Baseball is worried about it.

For about four decades, the number of African-Americans in baseball has been in substantial decline, and the investigation into the cause of the decline has gone on about as long. Even the Pew Research Center has gotten into the game. The convincing arguments are many, but they tend to center around socioeconomics, including the trends that Zirin decries.

Youth baseball, like almost everything else, has become more sophisticated, intense, and expensive, separating the haves from the have-nots, whether in terms of talent, money, or both. Steve Bandura, who coached Little League World Series hero Mo’ne Davis—JRW’s only rival in winning over LLWS fans last year—explained the dilemma from the perspective of a city baseball coach:

Suburban children often begin playing at 5 years old, participate in 50 to 100 games a year on travel teams and train year-round, Bandura said; urban players often start at 10 or 12 and have little opportunity to travel or to train in the off-season. Currently, Bandura said, most urban youths have “zero chance” of competing with suburban players.

Former Tribune reporter David Mendell, a youth baseball coach in Oak Park, encountered a culture shock when his nine-year-old son was recommended to a travel team, which can cost thousands of dollars and require kids to play as many games as a major-league platoon player. It’s closer to the majors than to the Little League idyll—except, of course, that the players have to pay to play. And the result is what Jerry Seinfeld called “rooting for laundry":

Some travel ballplayers resemble professional athletes: Year by year, they go from one travel team to another, switching teammates and uniforms, with the name splashed across the front of the jersey usually signifying something other than their home town.

“Where’s the local pride gone?” asked Tim Dennehy, pitching coach for Oak Park-River Forest High School’s varsity team. “By the time my teammates and I got to high school, we were like family. We were already a team, picking each other up, playing for our community. Now, guys arrive from a bunch of different teams, and they know guys in the other dugout better than they know each other.”

And it’s a more expensive sport, generally. Even if you question the nebulous idea that “the land required for diamonds are the crown jewels of urban real estate,” the fields themselves cost more to build and maintain than other forms of recreation, as Tom Verducci found in writing a comprehensive take on the decline of black baseball players back in 2003:

Baseball requires bats, balls, gloves and a large field that has to be maintained. Basketball needs only a ball and a court. Larry Harper, founder and director of the Good Tidings Foundation, which supports youth programs and builds athletic facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, says a state-of-the-art basketball court costs $30,000, with a generic blacktop one running as little as $5,000. A baseball field, he says, costs $100,000. Then, too, Harper says, “even if you get the field built, there’s [only] a 50-50 chance the field will be maintained.”

This reminded me of one of the great disappointments of my youth. I played Dixie Youth Baseball (no, not kidding) on a basic but well-maintained field sponsored by the gravel-mining outfit across the highway. One day we were told that we’d play a game at the high school, and we were elated: it would probably have a dugout! It would probably have a real backstop! Maybe even a bullpen! These things are important when you’re 10.

But the high-school field was an insult, a hard dry infield as forgiving as a driveway with about as many rocks. The minimal, corporate-sponsored field at least didn’t give you welts when you slid into second. It’s a familiar problem, as Adam Doster found when he profiled Simeon Career Academy’s long-dominant baseball team (which has an ongoing relationship with JRW):

Despite the team’s success, proper funding for the Wolverines has been hard to come by. In 1983, during Simeon’s inaugural trip to the state finals in Springfield, the brakes on their rented bus went out three times, stranding the team on the side of a country road until the wee hours of the morning. Four years later, Franklin told the Reader’s Steve Bogira that while he loved coaching, ”the fund-raising is a headache.” Like a lot of CPL managers, he still pays his assistants out of his own paycheck.

West Chatham Park, where the Wolverines play the majority of their home games, does not befit a perennial title contender, either. Four years ago, Mary Mitchell wrote a column in the Sun-Times prompting the Chicago Park District, which owns and maintains the land, to upgrade the battered playing surface. Though marginally improved now, it’s still in fairly rough shape. The dugouts are barely big enough for T-ballers, and there’s literally a hole, six inches deep and two feet in diameter, in the shallow outfield grass behind second base.

Some of the Simeon players come of out of JRW, and some even get to play travel ball—through a White Sox-funded program.

David Ogden, a University of Nebraska-Omaha professor who’s studied the culture of youth sports for many years, surveyed 27 Midwestern youth baseball coaches on the decline of black participation. “In addition to basketball,” Ogden writes, “the most common reasons for the lack of racial diversity were the paucity of black baseball facilities in black neighborhoods, the cost of playing select baseball, the lack of parents’ interest in the sport and the lack of community support.”

Of course, the popularity of basketball in the black community can’t be separated from socioeconomics. Access is interest, and basketball courts are cheaper to build. Meanwhile, funding for parks has followed gentrification in the city. In July of last year, Angela Caputo, then of the Chicago Reporter, found that “more than half of the $500 million spent on Park District improvements since 2011, the year Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected, went to just 10 of the city’s 77 neighborhoods—seven of them are increasingly white, affluent and have access to outside money.”

In the absence of funding, it’s also easier to assemble a game of pickup basketball than it is a sandlot game, and Ogden has also found a decline in casual baseball games in the region, which he also attributes in part to the rise of travel baseball and other highly organized leagues. Which actually brings us back to that word Zirin somewhat casually tossed in: “neoliberal.”

Jay Coakley, one of the preeminent scholars of the sociology of sport, ties in competitive, expensive travel leagues with the neoliberal project generally. See if this doesn’t sound familiar in the context of an increasingly privatized city:

As neoliberal ideas and beliefs are increasingly accepted, the ideological climate fosters consent for the privatization of sport participation opportunities, the imposition of user fees, and the reduction of public programs designed to serve the public good (Donnelly; Coakley, 2002). This occurs gradually and, among some people, becomes taken for granted, even some of those who lack resources for participation. There also is a decline in physical activities and sports played for pleasure and collective well-being. This is coupled with support for a physical culture organized around the ethos of elite, organized, competitive, commercial sports. Similarly, traditions of informal games and publicly funded neighborhood sports give way to organized programs emphasizing paid membership, exclusive recruitment, systematic training, certified coaches, preparation for competition, and regularly scheduled competitive matches, tournaments, playoffs, and championships. To fit with a neoliberal model, non-elite forms of sport are legitimized by organizing and labeling them as “developmental”—a commonly used to describe youth sports organized around progressive skill development with young people “graduating” from lower to higher and more demanding levels of competition.

[snip]

The influence of this link also occurs in sport programs designed and marketed as solutions to social problems. These programs often claim to “fix” young people labeled “at risk”—usually ethnic minority males in low income areas where schools and other basic institutions have been decimated by lack of public support combined with unregulated market forces.

If baseball is evaluated through the cold logic of economics, it fails—another barrier to low-income kids. The most thoughtful and empathetic response to the JRW story that I’ve seen comes from Andrew McCutchen, a star outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who puts the moneyball problems in simple terms:

I thought I was going to play college football. Why? Economics. If I could’ve been a wide receiver for a D-I school, I would have chosen that path because of the promise of a full scholarship. The University of Florida offered me a baseball scholarship, but it only covered 70 percent of the tuition. My family simply couldn’t afford the other 30 percent. The fact is, no matter how good you are, you’re not getting a full ride in baseball.

Why couldn’t McCutchen—now one of the best players in the game—get a full ride to play baseball? Because the NCAA caps the number of scholarships available to baseball players at 11.7, enough for a full lineup and two bench players. Football teams are allowed eighty-five. “Put simply, scholarship limits protect and promote revenue sports,” Peter Keating writes. “The NCAA allows individual schools to fund specific men’s sports only to the degree that those sports make money nationally.”

McCutchen admits he’s a baseball player through luck—"a miracle.” He found a mentor, at the age of 13, to support the economic costs of being an elite youth baseball player: “the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee.” (Carl Crawford, a fellow five-tool outfielder, paid JRW’s travel costs during the LLWS, despite not knowing anyone on the team.)

So McCutchen is less ready to condemn JRW’s parental leadership:

For all the backlash around the Jackie Robinson West team “cheating,” most people are ignoring the truth of how these 12-year-old kids make it out of their towns and onto a national stage. Individuals step in and fill that financial gap.

[snip]

The kids from Jackie Robinson West had a really bad day yesterday. But you know what? Somebody probably watched their Little League World Series run and saw one of them make a smart play in the field or hit a perfect line drive up the gap. That kid might not have been the best player on the team. But somebody saw something in him, and they’re going to reach out and say, “Hey, I want you on my team.” They’re going to become like a second father or mother to that kid.

Individuals like… the mayor of Chicago, whose “major announcement” on “government funding to finance city youth baseball” was teased during JRW’s playoff run. (“Sneed hears it could be part of a broader strategy for keeping inner-city kids out of street gangs and giving them the chance to experience all the life lessons taught when participating in our country’s national pastime.") That turned out to be $6.5 million for renovations at three south-side baseball fields, including Jackie Robinson Park in Washington Heights.

It may seem like a small issue in the greater context of the city. Even as a devout baseball fan, above all other sports, I can’t quite call it a tragedy if kids are playing basketball instead. Baseball’s great, but so are a lot of other things, things I might have been better off doing or watching. But it still comes back to itself: it’s sports. People care. People love it. Jackie Robinson West brought back a lot of good memories, for once-talented Little Leaguers and complete washouts like myself. Their fall brought back a lot of bad ones. But people care about those, too, because they echo just as much.

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