In a hamlet along the Susquehanna River, regal atop a pitcher’s mound at just 13, The Girl of Summer wound and delivered. Her dreadlocked braids flowing beautifully behind her ballcap, she fired in fastball after fastball for strikes. Throaty roars followed, from South Williamsport, Pa., to every tuned-in, awestruck viewer.
When Mo’ne Davis was through transfixing us, the kids from Jackie Robinson West on the South Side of Chicago took the baton, churning all the way to the championship game of the Little League World Series, where no all-African American team has won the title.
Together, they galvanized a sport and a nation while simultaneously taking many of the Grand Old Game’s stereotypes deep, over the center field wall of Howard J. Lamade Stadium:
Girls can beat boys, sometimes by shutout as Davis did, becoming the first female player in Little League World Series history to blank a team as she pitched the Taney Dragons to a victory in her first game. It was a feat that made Sports Illustrated turn its cover over to the youngest athlete ever featured.
And larger still: Given opportunity and facilities, young black schoolchildren in America still do care about baseball.
In the middle of a diamond, in the middle of every 12- and 13-year-old’s Little League fantasy — in the middle of, sadly, a bubbling racial cauldron in Ferguson, Mo., site of so much black-white tension the past two weeks — something happened in Williamsport that shouldn’t be committed too soon to memory.
Seven-year-old Caucasian boys, sliding on cardboard behind the stadium’s outfield fence, asked for autographs from pre-pubescent boys and girls. African American boys and girls. They didn’t care whether their heroes for the week looked like them or came from the same neighborhoods — or that Mo’ne Davis rides a bus an hour and 20 minutes every day to attend a prestigious private school.
No. They bonded over baseball, the national pastime in name only now, where three of the game’s greatest living players — Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks — now have to look around major league clubhouses and realize that not many African Americans ply their craft anymore in the sport that deified them.
In the mid-1970s, 27 percent of major league baseball players were black. By 1995, the number had slipped to just 19 percent. Opening day rosters this past spring showed just 8.3 percent of all big leaguers were African American.
The days of kids claiming to be the Say Hey Kid or Hammerin’ Hank, playing stickball in a Harlem street or an Oakland playground, are probably gone forever. But why, we all asked.
Because basketball and football involve more immediate gratification and seem to move at warp speed next to four-hour, multiple-switch yawners? Because Michael Jordan and LeBron James are much larger than Ken Griffey Jr. or Mike Trout ever will be? That’s intellectually lazy, since every kid of every ethnicity is drawn to faster and more popular on every level.
Economics? Sure. There are 85 scholarships for a big-time college football school to dole out; there are just 11.7 baseball scholarships, traditionally a non-revenue sport in college.
For two decades youth baseball has been co-opted more than ever for monetary gain in America, where pay-for-play teams require year-around fanatical commitment, where well-heeled parents pay for individual instruction in what ESPN’s Tim Keown wrote has become “a business enterprise designed to exclude those without the means and mobility to participate.”
Jimmie Lee Solomon saw this when Commissioner Bud Selig named him executive vice president of baseball operations in 2005 and then baseball development in 2010.
“It’s the old adage, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ with a little twist to account for socioeconomic disproportion: If you build it where they are, they will flourish,” he said.
Solomon oversaw Major League Baseball’s first four urban academies, including the first in Compton, Calif. The Washington Nationals have their own now in Fort Dupont as Selig has tried to rectify the problem of luring more African Americans to the game before his January retirement.
Six players from Jackie Robinson West belonged to the Chicago White Sox’s ACEs program. The team was a member of the Little League Urban Initiative. Formed in 1999, it supports Little League in needy urban areas.
“It’s extremely gratifying to see the programs we started begin to pay off,” Solomon said. “The pride is something so immense it’s hard to verbalize.”
Jackie Robinson’s widow did her best.
Rachel Robinson, the First Lady of the Grand Old Game whose life is dedicated to making people remember her husband breaking the color barrier in 1947, penned individual letters to members of the U.S. champions from Chicago, including star player Pierce Jones.
To have an African-American squad from Chicago, the first from the city to qualify for the Series since 1983, succeed and inspire other young men and women is so meaningful.
Thank you for upholding the legacy of my husband Jack, your namesake, through your hard work, dedication and excellent teamwork.
Jackie Robinson West fell in the title game to South Korea, 8-4. The Chicago kids were a batter away from bringing the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning. Still, at the end, there were no visible tears on the ABC broadcast, mostly smiling, proud kids understanding they simply got beat by a better team.
The end hardly dampened the significance of the moment.
Let’s be clear: The Little League World Series is grist for so many issues involving our youth every year. It’s fair to argue, for example, whether children should have to risk nationally televised failure in front of millions. It’s also fair to point out the inequities between the competitors and the people who pocket the money, especially after a Mo’ne Davis-signed baseball reportedly went for $300 on eBay last week.
Really, should kids with bedtimes double as unpaid commercial endorsers? Mo’ne’s game Wednesday night against Las Vegas had a larger viewing audience than every major league telecast on ESPN besides the Home Run Derby the past seven years. It was network’s biggest baseball draw since 5.3 million watched the Red Sox-Yankees in April 2007.
But the past two weeks, so many of those questions felt like they were best answered another day. This summer, Williamsport was treated to something utopian: a tournament that reflected the demographics of the nation — a 13-year-old fireball right-hander named Mo’ne Davis, Pierce Jones and the power and grace of one of the first all-African American teams to make the championship game. And the people who watched them heal so many fractured souls.
Among them were members of the 1955 South Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars in Charleston, S.C., an all-black team that all 61 white teams in South Carolina refused to play at the time. All past 70 years old, their members sat dignified at Lamade Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
John Bailey, one of five members of the team who attended the game, added, “I felt kind of exonerated.” The 71-year-old grandfather of six spoke at 9 p.m. from his Kensington home after he returned from Williamsport.
“To see the boys from Jackie Robinson West represented and do the things we could not do in 1955, I finally felt closure.”