This was indeed a special moment for these 13 young men, the Englewood and South Side communities, the city of Chicago, and the entire nation to celebrate. It was also a moment of hope for those who come from areas that are socially and economically disadvantaged.
Now, we are in the month of September, and the glory days of these young boys of summer are slowly slipping away. The question is whether this unexpected moment of hope can be captured, sustained and converted to others.
To answer the question it is useful to look backward then forward.
Many probably know the deeds of Jackie Robinson, this little league champion team’s namesake, through the lens of the movie 42. That movie does an excellent job of portraying Jackie’s performance in 1947 when he broke the color barrier in major league baseball by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It honestly depicts the animosity toward Robinson — some of which came from his own teammates — displayed by some teams and fans around the league. It also shows the critical role that Branch Rickey, owner of the Dodgers, played in bringing Jackie to the “Bigs” and getting him to agree to keep his cool and not “to fight back when confronted with racism.”
What the film does not cover is who Jackie was before and after that breakthrough season of 1947. Jackie was born in 1919 to a Georgia family of sharecroppers and raised singlehandedly along with his four siblings by his mother, Mallie Robinson.
Jackie’s family moved to California where he went to college at UCLA and won varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball football and track. In 1941, he was named to the All American football team.
Even though he was inducted into baseball’s hall of fame in 1962 after an outstanding professional career, knowledgeable observers at the time noted that baseball was probably only Jackie’s second best sport. His accomplishments, though, didn’t end on the playing field.
While Jackie may have kept quiet in the turbulent season of ’47, he didn’t do so after his playing years were over. He became a business executive, helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American financial institution in Harlem, New York, and served on the board of the NAACP for several years.
Jackie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal posthumously. Those awards were testimony to the impact he had throughout his life.
His contributions and defining belief are summed up best in five simple words and a quote on the website for The Jackie Robinson Foundation — the words “baseball player, civil rights activist.”
The quote, “The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.” It was the most important issue when Jackie passed away in 1972. Unfortunately, it remains the most important issue today — more than 40 years after his death.
In spite of this, we are certain that Jackie is smiling down on those kids from Chicago’s South Side now. We are just as confident that he is saying there is much more to be done to deliver on that promise of first class citizenship for all.
This Jackie Robinson West team gave the nation hope and the chance to renew that promise again. It is important to note that in 1983, however, that another Jackie Robinson West team from the South Side gave us that opportunity over 30 years ago.
That Jackie Robinson West team made it to the Little League World Series then. It placed fifth in that year.
The players on that ’83 team are in their 40s now. Several of them returned to Williamsport to cheer on this new cast for Jackie Robinson West and were ecstatic at the outcome.
We don’t know what has happened to these adults and their teammates in their personal lives since they played in Williamsport themselves. We do know that, if they live in Englewood, there is a good chance that some of them have experienced tough times.
That’s because the Englewood community can be a tough place in which to grow up and to survive. In the August time period, while Jackie Robinson West was in the World Series, Englewood ranked 4th (tied) among Chicago’s 77 community areas for violent crime.
Based upon 2010 U.S. Census statistics and City of Chicago data, Englewood stacks up as follows in comparison to Chicago as a whole: per capita income: $11,993 vs. $ 27,148; households below poverty level: 42.2 percent vs. 18.7 percent; and unemployed: 21.3 percent vs 11.1 percent.
Down the road about 400 miles or so from Chicago, in a Missouri suburb, there is a city with “bad numbers” as well: per capita income: $21,000; households below poverty level: approximately 25 percent; and unemployed: 13 percent.
That city is Ferguson. Ferguson is not a suburban outlier, a Brookings Institution study revealed that “Within the nation’s large 100 metro areas, the number of suburban neighborhoods where more than 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line more than doubled between 2000 and 2008 — 2012.”
Consider, Ferguson, Mo. and Englewood from the South Side of Chicago. In August, these two communities brought us two different stories: One a narrative of discontent and despair; the other a narrative of striving and achieving.
Jackie Robinson West demonstrated that all things are possible even for those in difficult circumstances. This very-well coached team demonstrated discipline beyond its years. The players could lay down bunts, execute the squeeze play and turn the double play.
Just like Jackie Robinson, they ran and stole bases with acumen and controlled abandon. Speed to them was not a drug, but one of their competitive advantages.
They were down by three runs in the first inning and fell behind again in the fifth inning of the championship game. They never gave up. They came back, and they prevailed. They believed in each other and their leaders.
Most importantly, they won and lost with dignity. They applauded their opponents and themselves. They set an example.
They didn’t accomplish this without some help. They received support from coaches, family, friends and relatives in their communities.
Major league baseball player Curtis Granderson, who grew up in the suburbs south of Chicago and played ball at the University of Illinois at Chicago, donated money so the players could make the trip to Williamsport. Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson, sent notes to the players on letterhead from the Jackie Robinson Foundation commending their accomplishments in winning the Great Lakes Championship and their first game in the World Series.
Six of the Jackie Robinson West players played in the White Sox Amateur City Elite Program (City Elite) sponsored by Chicago White Sox Charities and Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. City Elite takes 100 inner city players during the summer and focuses on the development of both academic and athletic skills and abilities.
In sum, this was a team victory. That’s team in the broadest sense of the word.
Jackie Robinson West’s winning the U.S. little league title was a transcendent moment. It was a moment in the sun.
As Americans of good faith and good will, we need to capitalize on that moment and sustain it. We can do that by capturing the energy from this sunburst and using it to shine a bright light on the desperate needs and circumstances of those in poor urban, suburban and rural communities across our great country.
Improving the conditions in those communities will require a comprehensive intervention. It will require collaboration among those from the corporate, governmental, philanthropic, non-profit and citizen sectors. It will require a plan for each community. It will require investments in infrastructure, eco-structure and human-structure.
It must begin with school-centered solutions. In many of our decaying communities, the schools are the last resort for turning things around. They represent islands of hope in a landscape where commercial and retail businesses have disappeared, the value of housing stock has plummeted, and there is virtually no earning power.
The good news is there are already school-related programs that are making a difference for students in these communities in much the same way that Jackie Robinson West has for these Little League youth from the South Side.
Programs with which Ed Crego is familiar in the Chicago-area based upon his personal involvement include:
- Merit School of Music which focuses on youth in underserved communities and inspires them to achieve their full musical and personal potential.
- Reading in Motion which uses the power and discipline of the arts to reach at-risk students and gets them to read at or above grade level within the first few years of school
- Our American Voice, a program for middle school students, which teaches students in grades five through eight the basics of American democracy and citizenship employing an action-learning model.
These programs are merely a Whitman’s sampler of the innovative practices being employed in Chicago to make a meaningful difference in kids’ lives. It’s not just in Chicago. There are countless initiatives in other locations nation-wide that warrant replication and scaling.
The problem is they lack the necessary resources. Jackie Robinson West showed us what is possible even when resources are scarce.
Imagine what might be accomplished with the dedication of the right resources and all hands on board. Imagine what might happen if we gave hope a chance.
Imagine Jackie Robinson West. Imagine Jackie Robinson. Imagine the American Dream for all.