Little League is an international organization governing youth baseball, with precise rules aimed at ensuring the fairness of the game. When it comes to Little League’s annual tournament, when teams of 11- and 12-year-old “all-stars” from local organizations around the world compete to the play in the Little League World Series, the rules are cited, interpreted, and debated as if the local ballpark were an appellate court. As the kids who played for Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West team have learned, the adults who run their games aren’t always interested in fairness.
This past February, Little League International stripped the Jackie Robinson West all-star team from Chicago of their title as 2014 United States Little League champions. The move came after Little League officials verified complaints from Chris Janes, vice-president of the local Little League organization in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park, that JRW had illegally redrawn district boundaries in order to stack its team with the region’s best players. All of the boys who played for JRW, as well as their coaching and administrative staff, are African Americans, most of whom live in the neighborhoods of Chicago’s south and west sides (Janes’ complaint argued that all of the players should have resided in these neighborhoods). The Chicago team’s performance, along with that of Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons, which featured star female pitcher Mo’ne Davis, highlighted an unusual degree of success for urban, largely African American teams in the 2014 Little League World Series. JRW defeated Taney in the semi-final of the U.S. bracket of the tournament, before going on to lose to the team from Seoul, South Korea, in the world championship game.
The success of JRW and Taney captured the hearts of people across the country. Spike Lee produced a short documentary about Mo’ne Davis for Chevrolet, excerpted portions of which became a frequently aired television commercial in the fall. JRW enjoyed a cross-town parade after their return to Chicago. The sight of African American children celebrating victories on the baseball field vividly contrasted with reports during the opening week of the baseball season that African American participation in Major League Baseball, and the popularity of baseball within African American communities, has declined dramatically over the past three decades. The JRW kids had managed to develop their outstanding team despite the fact that many resided in neighborhoods in which gangs and gun violence are common realities of daily life. When they lost their title, the news was heartbreaking.
It also precipitated an outpouring of bullshit of epic proportions. I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of Little League Baseball’s bylaws, nor can I vouch for the character of those directing JRW. For all I know, officials of Little League Baseball were obligated to make the decision that they did after seeing the evidence presented. But the bloviating reactions to this event reflect far more about the fantasies that adults invest in youth sports than they enlighten anyone to the significance of this sad turn of events. Greg Couch’s column in Rolling Stone is a great example of this. After stating that he initially “bought in” to the celebration of JWS, he writes, “In Chicago, people feel bad for the players today. But those kids still get to keep all the memories. Still got to play games on ESPN and meet the President. So what did they lose? Their innocence, that’s what.”
Now to be fair, Couch’s main argument was that the Chicago players were part of a team that broke the rules and enjoyed an unfair advantage, preventing other teams from playing on ESPN and meeting the President. I’m not going to argue with Couch’s point here, because I don’t know enough about the facts of the case (and I suspect, neither does he). What I do know is that, right off the bat, Little League rules grant teams from the United States an unfair advantage against teams from all other nations because at least one American squad is guaranteed a spot in the Little League World Series’ championship game. Now that we have dispensed of Little League’s “fairness,” I’d like to get on with my larger point: organized youth sports, generally speaking, can be quite creepy.
A few weeks ago, in the run-up to the Oscars, The Allrounder polled a group of writers as to their award for worst and best performances by actors in sports movies. My award for best actor goes to Vic Morrow as Roy Turner in the 1976 version of The Bad News Bears. He plays the parent-manager of the fictional Yankees, perennial champions of a southern California, suburban Little League-style baseball league. He embodies the tightly-wound, hyper-competitive, suburban parent-coach. In the film’s final scenes, he hits his son on the pitcher’s mound, then shakes off the ugly family breakdown and manages the Yankees to another title. Morrow’s Turner is so not “about the kids.” In fact, he’s just a little bit evil.
Here’s the creepy part: there’s a little Roy Turner pulling even the most progressive parent-coach toward the dark side. As a recovered youth sports coach, I know this. Altogether, I spent nine years as either a head or assistant coach for my children’s soccer or baseball teams. Perhaps my first Turneresque moment came when I was helping to coach my son’s second-grade baseball team. Nick was a pretty good pitcher with an impressive windup and terrific control. One late afternoon, on a field where the sun shone directly into the eyes of the opposing batters, Nick threw a fastball that ended up hitting the batter in the mouth. Blood, baby teeth, and tears flowed from the victim. Nick broke down crying. He never pitched for a Little League team again.
Yet this moment pales in comparison to my daughter’s short foray into the amoral universe known as “travel soccer.” When she was ten, Catherine expressed interest in trying out for the fifth-grade travel soccer team, and I was all too willing to encourage her. She made the roster, but even before the season began, we recognized darkness on the horizon. Two nights a week, I sat with the other parents in our hammock-style folding chairs watching our daughters spend pleasant fall twilights running torturous drills seemingly designed to strip any vestige of fun. The coach – humorless, sexist, neo-Calvinist – only managed to express an emotion approaching glee when he would force girls to run “suicides,” this only for those on whom he smelled a whiff of perfume or saw a gleam of finger-nail polish.
This is not to say that youth league coaches cannot be forces for good. When Catherine was in second grade, she played under a great coach and wonderful human being named Scott Peterson. Scott was fun, and the fun that he generated came from the sense of togetherness, of empathy, of teamwork, and of accomplishment that a sports team at its best can foster. He led by example – his big smile and hearty laugh communicated that a soccer team is something to be enjoyed, not endured: the opposite, in other words, of travel soccer.
Catherine quit the travel team, and in the spring, I agreed to help organize a co-ed recreational league, channeling my inner Scott Peterson over my inner Roy Turner. We called our team the “Zen,” and focused upon playing soccer “in the moment.” My assistant developed a set of Zen-inspired counter-coaching instructions that he would yell from the sidelines: “bunch-up!” “Be selfish!” “Don’t pass!” The Zen didn’t score a goal during their first season, but over time they improved (Catherine likes to point out that by the time they were winning games in the spring season of her seventh grade year, they were playing against fourth graders, so one must measure their success in relative terms).
Memories of my rec coaching “career” flooded back to me this winter when the JRW scandal hit the news. Since I’ve been old enough to develop critical thoughts about sports, I’ve never been a big fan of the Little League World Series. Yet I have to admit that I was as caught up as anyone by the dramatic tournament in the summer of 2014. Having researched and written about the history of sports at federally operated boarding schools for Native Americans, I recognize how sports have been a valuable source of pride for populations that American racism has marginalized. The very name of the Chicago team – Jackie Robinson West – is a poignant reminder of this.
This is not the first time a team has pulled some sort of shenanigans to stack their side and win a Little League title. Historian Andrew Morris has shown that Taiwan’s run of Little League world championships in the 1970s and 80s was based on doctored rosters and birth certificates as well as training regimens that bordered on the abusive. Yet this is one of the first times a team’s legitimacy has been questioned and its title stripped. A comparable episode occurred in 2001 when Little League Baseball revoked the third place finish for a team from the Bronx, New York. Its star pitcher, Danny Almonte, had violated the regulations for Little League play because he was two years over the age limit.
Sports historian Adrian Burgos, Jr., pointed out long ago how gatekeepers of early organized baseball, like Cap Anson and A.G. Spaulding, drew upon claims of baseball’s “innocence” to justify the exclusion of non-whites from competition. I don’t think that it’s too far fetched to see an echo of that history in the complaints filed by parents in 2014 and 2001. But it is a harmful fantasy of the most delusional proportions to think that they are about innocence. Children from all backgrounds have troubling experiences that rob them of their innocence, but youth sports are the last place one should look to get it back. In fact, if a kid hasn’t been jaded by the world already, a typical tryout under the gaze of a few Roy Turners just might do the trick. As far as the members of Jackie Robinson West are concerned, my guess is that living in a world of constant police harassment and surveillance, where young teens routinely carry semi-automatic weapons and the charter school subjects them to rules that make them feel like inmates, innocence was lost long ago. And in the suburbs, where their very presence makes them a suspect, it has never even been presumed.
John Bloom is associate professor of history at Shippensburg University. He is the author of To Show What an Indian Can Do: Sports at Native American Boarding Schools and There You Have It: The Life, Legacy, and Legend of Howard Cosell. John is on Twitter at @.