Thank you, Jackie Robinson West

With the image of Jackie Robinson on the wall in the background, Chicago White Sox right fielder Alex Rios (51) plays a ball that went for a single in the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois, Saturday, September 8, 2012. The White Sox defeated the Royals, 5-4. (Photo Courtesy of Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

With the image of Jackie Robinson on the wall in the background, Chicago White Sox right fielder Alex Rios (51) plays a ball that went for a single in the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois, Saturday, September 8, 2012. The White Sox defeated the Royals, 5-4. (Photo Courtesy of Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

There never seems to be a shortage of feel-good stories at an event like the Little League World Series. But what happened in South Willamsport, Pennsylvania, this weekend carried with it a little something extra.

One team, beloved by millions of supporters from both close to home and across the country, became an instant favorite.

It was a journey 43 years in the making, one that started on the south side of Chicago, the vision of now deceased Joseph Haley who founded the Jackie Robinson West Little League.

The Jackie Robinson League All-Stars, your 2014 Little League World Series United States champion, is the first all-black team ever to take home that title.

Not only did this team’s performance give weary Chicago baseball fans something to be excited about, it serves as an inspiration to kids who dream of sprinting from the top steps of the dugout onto the sacred grounds of Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where the Little League World Series is played.

The success of Jackie Robinson West drew the attention of African-American players like Chicago native and New York Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson, who watched the games from the clubhouse at Citi Field.

The New York Mets' Curtis Granderson (3) safely reaches third base in the seventh inning as the Miami Marlins' Casey McGehee (9) waits for the throw at Marlins Park in Miami on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The Mets won, 1-0. (Hector Gabino/El Nuevo Herald/MCT)

The New York Mets’ Curtis Granderson (3) safely reaches third base in the seventh inning as the Miami Marlins’ Casey McGehee (9) waits for the throw at Marlins Park in Miami on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The Mets won, 1-0. (Hector Gabino/El Nuevo Herald/MCT)

The Little League World Series allows us to embrace diversity, with the dominance of Latin American and Asian teams on the international stage, but the lack of African-American youth in baseball is not a new issue.

Today, just 10 percent of Major League Baseball players are African-American, down from 30 percent in the 1970s.

But there is plenty of optimism for the revival of baseball in inner cities, especially with active players like Granderson serving as beacons of hope.

Granderson was recently recognized by his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago, for helping bring baseball back to the inner cities. The university named its new stadium after its hometown hero.

African-American players have been making headlines at all levels of the sport, marking a possible resurgence in their presence in the game.

One of the biggest stories out of this year’s Little League World Series was African-American pitcher Mo’Ne Davis who was one of the most dominant players in the tournament and was the first girl to ever pitch consecutive shutouts in the LLWS.

African-American major league players like Ken Griffey Jr. and Tony Gwynn are permanently etched into baseball lore, and even in recent years Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen has emerged as one of the game’s brightest stars.StefanModrich-01

As Chanel Howard, mother of Jackie Robinson West shortstop Ed “Silk Nine” Howard, said to the Chicago Tribune, “baseball isn’t a sport you can play alone.”

In the spirit of community building, I can’t help but recall a time so iconic that for decades it was nearly synonymous with baseball itself.

Before “The Sandlot,” and “Bad News Bears,” young boys played stickball in city streets. Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays got his start on the brick roads of Harlem, living in an apartment on 155th Street and St. Nicholas Place, where he moved when he began his career with the New York Giants in 1951.
The “Say Hey Kid” played with local neighborhood boys as a rookie and would take them out for ice cream before heading to his night job, patrolling center field under the lights of the nearby Polo Grounds.

Mays, along with some of the sport’s greatest black players ever, owes his success largely to the efforts of the civil rights pioneer whose namesake is emblazoned across the chest of the jerseys that the team wore prior to advancing past regionals, from then on sporting the words “Great Lakes.”

So thank you, Jackie Robinson West, for inspiring the innate baseball fan in all of us.
Thank you for shocking the world with a run to the championship game when most of us thought you were finished after a 13-2 loss to Nevada.

Thank you for your late heroics and redeeming comebacks, for finding a way even when elimination seemed inevitable.

Thank you for your valiant effort in the championship game, though ultimately losing to a talented South Korean team when a sixth inning rally fell short.

The city of Chicago has seen three championship parades since the day Haley passed away in June of 2005. But none would be more special for him than the one scheduled to take place this Wednesday, beginning on the South Side and ending at Millennium Park, for the determined team from Morgan Street that simply refused to quit.

 

Reach the assistant sports editor at smodrich@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @StefanJModrich