Gwendolyn Brooks baseball field

Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

The baseball fields at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, April 29, 2013

If Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep has an unofficial cheerleader, it’s Anthony Beale. The 9th Ward alderman told me back in February, when he unsuccessfully ran for the congressional seat once held by Jesse Jackson Jr., that the proudest achievement of his 14-year aldermanic tenure was being the oomph behind the building of four state-of-the-art baseball fields in far-south-side Roseland—near Pullman, the community that he represents and where he was born, raised, and still lives.

One of those fields is on the gated 40-acre Brooks campus at 111th and King Drive. On the last Saturday night in April, Brooks players waited more than an hour for the north side Walter Payton team that never showed up. Afterwards, the Sun-Times reported that the Payton team's coach told his peer at Brooks that the cause was parents who didn't want their kids playing a night game in the neighborhood.

Although Payton’s principal denies it, Beale, 45, who can often be seen on a John Deere mowing the field and who has volunteered, for the last eight years, as first-base coach, says that the beleaguered Payton coach told the truth when he apologized for Payton parents. They did indeed, says Beale, fear sending their sons to a 7 p.m. game in an area that is too often in the news for gang-related shootings. 

The game has been rescheduled for this Saturday night. I reached Beale by telephone to get his view of the troubles between the teams. No matter the question, Beale couldn’t resist talking about why these fields—also used for Little League, Pee Wee leagues (five to eight years old), and girls' softball—and the game of baseball matter so much to him.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: Describe the Brooks campus on which the field is located.

AB: It’s 40 acres, all fenced-in, three driveways, totally gated in, totally secure. We’ve never had an incident.

CF: This is a serious field that I understand is suitable for Triple A professional baseball. How many spectators does it hold?

AB: About 1500. For a normal game we get about 50-60 people.

CF: You’ve said that the Brooks baseball field is  one of the “few” CPS fields that has lights—suitable for use by a minor league team. Have any minor league teams played there?

AB: No, but Chicago State, Olive-Harvey College, and Northwestern have played there.  Also, going back five or six years, Michael Jordan and R. Kelly played a celebrity game there. Michael and his friends against R. Kelly and his. Michael played short stop and then pitched a little bit. I think Michael’s team won.

CF: Brooks and Payton are not in the same conference—Brooks is in the south conference and Payton, located on Wells Street in Old Town, in the north.  So how did they come to have that game that launched a thousand news stories and intense anger and suspicion?

AB: Basically coaches call around to schedule nonconference games.  CPS comes out with a master schedule. Coaches have the ability to schedule games with teams in the Catholic league, for example. In this case I’m not sure who called whom.   

CF: On the day of the forfeited game were you working on the field?

AB: Yes, I was helping to get the field ready. It was the first night game of the season; it was a perfect night weather-wise, exciting time.

CF: How did the Brooks players take the news that the game was off?

AB: The kids were hurt, their feelings were hurt.  Anytime you’re looking forward to a night game, everything is in place and then you get the call.  I talked to them and said you have to take this as a learning experience.  It’s part of life. You have to learn to get through adversity.

CF: Brooks is 99 percent minority. (86.1 percent African American; 12.9 percent Hispanic; 0.4 percent white). Payton’s largest demographic is white, at  36.8%; second is Hispanic at 24.9%. Did you hear complaints of racism from your players?

AB: Yes there were charges of racism, feelings floating around that racism was to blame. There has to be a hint of racism that played into this. As a city and a nation we have to move forward, to use this as a learning experience. 

CF: The Payton head coach, William Wittleder, has been in the eye of the storm since the Sun-Times reported that Wittleder had told Brooks coach Bryan Street that some of the Payton parents didn’t want their sons to play “down there.”

The Payton side, including Payton principal Timothy Devine in an email to students, is blaming "poor communication by the coach to our baseball parents about who would be responsible for transportation.”  The story line was soon out that Wittleder was to blame for the mess because he or some staffer neglected to  order a bus.

If Wittleder had ordered the bus, Devine and others seemed to be saying,  the game would have happened and this would not have erupted into ugly controversy. According to the Sun-Times, some parents and even some team members now want Coach Wittleder out.

AB: I said from day one that I commend the coach who came all the way to Brooks that Saturday to apologize, and apologizing is a necessary step to healing. He is an upstanding gentleman. I really commend him. I hope that a person of his character integrity continues to coach. We need people like him in kids’ lives.

CF: So the issue of the bus?

AB: Just an excuse. In high school we all have bus problems. It’s the nature of CPS. Personally, I think that’s  an excuse to cover up what the real issue.  [Payton parents] did not want their kids to come to the South Side at night.

CF: I often read in the Sun-Times or Tribune of shootings in Roseland.

AB: Roseland extends from 119th to 87th streets. It’s a very large community. If something happens on 87th it doesn’t impact on 111th or 103rd. That’s where press does a disservice.

CF: So what can be done to improve Roseland’s image?

AB: We have to put more police where the problems are. We need community centers, after-school programs. During the Clinton administration we [as a city] were receiving $300 million to create youth programs. Today that number is down to $70 million for the entire city. 

CF: Do Brooks students who play varsity baseball for you go on to play in college?

AB: There are currently five or six students who played at Brooks were are now playing college baseball.

CF: Two of your sons attended Brooks, one is currently a junior at Brooks; one in college. Did either play baseball for Brooks?

AB: My son who’s in college played for three years. My younger son is not a baseball guy. He thinks that his dad and older brother are baseball fanatics. He bowls and golfs. (The senior Beale is also an avid White Sox fan.)

CF: On the Monday after the forfeiture and the raging controversy that ensued, Mayor Emanuel showed up, in a business suit, for a 4:30 game at Brooks against Morgan Park. Were you there, and, if yes, were you glad to see him there?

AB: Yes I was there and I thought it was a good-faith gesture. He was cheering the Brooks kids on. He stayed through the sixth inning.

CF: How many Brooks fans were in the stands on April 27th waiting for the Payton team to show?

AB: Probably about 40, mostly parents. We have a concession stand. The barbecues were going and then it was all over before it started.

CF: This Saturday’s game will be a much bigger draw; there will definitely be local press there, and maybe even national.

AB: Yes. Both of these teams will be blessed to have an opportunity to play before the city of Chicago and beyond.


Note:  Both Brooks and Payton are selective enrollment schools: In 2013, US News ranked Brooks number 13 of the 25 top high schools in Illinois; in the same ranking, Payton ranked second.