Little League team offers a lens on urban America
By Dave Zirin
The stripping of the Little League United States Championship title from Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West team on charges that they “recruited players outside their boundary” is a perfect distillation of exactly why urban baseball is on life support in the United States.
This action also provides us with an ugly lens that displays what’s tearing apart historic American cities. Jackie Robinson West caught the imagination of the country precisely because the team is a stunning Little League anomaly. They are an all-African American squad from Chicago’s South Side, an area defined by the absence of safe and accessible public space to play. Recent rounds of budget cuts and school closures also gave their ascent a fairy-tale feel. This is why they were feted with a parade in Chicago and a visit to the White House, where they were extolled as a symbol, of “hope, inspiration, and unity to their community.”
But it is exactly their community, and far too many other urban communities, that suffer from the absence of infrastructure necessary to produce winning Little League baseball. The players come from families that range from stable middle- and working-class homes to families that have suffered evictions and even homelessness. The team itself often had to practice outside its boundary, traveling to the distant suburbs just to find an acceptable field. The opponents in their journey to become U.S. champions were suburban teams with the resources and stability to create this most unlevel of playing fields.
The inability of urban baseball to flourish should be seen as, in the words of sports sociologist Harry Edwards, a canary in a coal mine, a warning about how inhospitable our cities have become for poor and working-class residents. U.S. cities are either in a state of disinvestment or gentrification, with those in lower income strata either ignored or pushed out by rising rents. Militarized police forces, such as what we saw in Ferguson, Mo., become reminders of who the city is there to serve as well as who is being protected and defended.
A baseball field then becomes either a symbol of urban neglect or a target of what has become the raw material of the 21st century gold rush: urban real estate. Cities are theoretically supposed to be melting pots that create a unified space transcending divisions of race and class. But the truth is very different and the trend lines are deeply disturbing. As the Brookings Institution reported in 2014, “U.S. Census Bureau data confirm that, overall, big cities remain more unequal places by income than the rest of the country.” It also reported that, over the last 35 years, the wealthy in big cities have seen their incomes dramatically spike while those at the bottom have seen stagnation.
This crisis in urban baseball has caught the attention of Major League Baseball. The number of African American players has been plummeting for a generation. For a decade, the major leagues have attempted to run a program called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. Last fall, after the Jackie Robinson West miracle run, the Chicago Cubs donated $330,000 to refurbish the baseball diamonds of the South Side. But gestures like this may amount to a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. As Edwards said to me of such programs, “It’s like pumping air into the lungs of a dead man. He needs life; he doesn’t need air.”
Baseball will only truly revive in the inner cities if we confront inequality and protect as well as defend public space and infrastructure. As long as urban areas are defined either by neglect or gentrification, baseball — along with communities that can support baseball — will die. Little League International has chosen to punish the children of Jackie Robinson West for trying to cobble together a team in the face of profound social forces remaking the cities of the United States. They should be honored for succeeding in the face of these obstacles, not shamed.
Dave Zirin, a sports journalist for The Nation, writes about sports, politics and popular culture. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org