THR Web Features   /   February 19, 2015

In Little League, All Racial Politics Are Local

Guest Blogger

President Barack Obama welcomes the Jackie Robinson West All Stars to the Oval Office, Nov. 6, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Little League International has stripped the Jackie Robinson West team of its national title. The team, made up exclusively of black players from Chicago, won the US Little League title last fall, losing only to South Korea in the Little League World Series final in August. Their triumphs earned them accolades, parades, and even a trip to the White House. Jackie Robinson West’s success was particularly poignant given the well-known decline in baseball participation among black Americans, especially those from urban centers like Chicago.

According to a statement released by Little League, Jackie Robinson West was stripped of its title due to league officials’ apparent falsification of league boundaries. The aim of the team’s managers, the statement suggests, was to include some high caliber players on the team who otherwise would not be eligible to play on it because they live and go to school outside of Jackie Robinson West’s league boundaries. There is, however, another dimension to this story—a racial one, having to do with how Little League local government operates in the first place.

Anybody who has worked with Little League baseball knows that it is a surprisingly unwieldy institution. Although heavy on rules, Little League is a highly decentralized organization. The building blocks of Little League baseball are “leagues” and then “districts,” with the latter made up of several, sometimes many, leagues. Most of the finer points in Little League rules and procedures concern “tournament” play, a form of play different from the regular season. Akin to the playoffs, tournament play features all-star teams made up of the best players in a given “league,” of which there are hundreds in the United States alone. Every summer and fall, all-star teams from a few of these leagues work their way through an elaborate tournament structure and end up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the Little League World Series. Jackie Robinson West not only made it to Williamsport, but also defeated all the other US teams in the tournament to play in the Little League World Series final.

Under Little League rules, districts have clear boundaries. Leagues nominally do, too. But in reality, league boundaries are not infrequently contested, redrawn, debated, or made “flexible” for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons has unquestionably been race.

In Champaign-Urbana (about two hours south of Chicago)—my own Little League community—there are clear boundaries drawn around the four “leagues” that comprise Little League baseball in this area. Their boundaries are far from square (as you can see here). Rather, they wind and weave here and there, barely following the grid layout imposed on a flat, prairie city. A local board made up of the Champaign-Urbana Little League sponsor (the Kiwanis) and the four league presidents meet from time to time to redraw the boundaries according to new developments in town—including, in 2012, contracting from six Champaign-Urbana leagues to four due to a decline in Little League participation. These new boundaries are sent to the District Manager and eventually to a central Little League office to be made official. But pending that approval, it is up to the local league boards to figure out exactly where the league boundaries should be drawn, and when they should be redrawn.

With this arrangement, Little League has given local communities tremendous discretion in determining the boundaries of its leagues. This tends to lead to boundaries that consistently follow “local prejudices” in the sense that historically black areas are separated from nearby white areas, in the same way that we see, for example, the placement and quality of urban public schools mirroring a pattern of racial and socio-economic demographics. Little League regulations, thus, tolerate, even perpetuate these patterns by putting into place rules and procedures that enable this to happen with little or no resistance. The all-too-common result: all-black leagues.

For example, one of the Champaign-Urbana leagues, known as “First String,” covers a large historically black neighborhood that is also, and has been for some time, the poorest area in the area. The southern, eastern, and western boundaries of this league follow the perimeters of this historically black neighborhood. The league extends north into a box-store district with very little single-family housing. Only one school from which to draw players is found within its boundaries, whereas numerous schools are found within the borders of each of the other local leagues. And First String is the only league on the map that crosses the boundary line dividing the two major municipalities of the area: Champaign and Urbana (and, thus, the two major school districts). It is self-evident to anyone who knows the Champaign-Urbana area that First String’s league boundaries are drawn according to racial and socio-economic demographics. Of the four leagues in my area, First String’s is consistently composed of all-black players.

That Little League boundaries are drawn according to local racial politics should not be all that surprising. Little League is, at bottom, a community-based organization. This is one of its virtues, but that also makes it vulnerable to local prejudice—and this is the more telling aspect of the story of the First String league in Champaign-Urbana. There is, and has been for decades, an “understanding” in the community that if you are black, no matter where you live in the Champaign-Urbana area, you can play for First String. This does not mean—at least not in recent history—that if you are black you must play for First String: The team I coach in Urbana is racially diverse, and it is not in the First String league. Rather, it is understood that if you are black and don’t live within the borders of First String, you may nevertheless play for them.

Properly speaking, this is against the rules. But there’s a shared understanding that such boundary crossing is permitted. This has been the case for years, and officials have long turned a blind eye. The black players who cross the league boundary are often players from wealthier areas, and wealthier families, in town. Their parents justifiably and even nobly see the boundary crossing as a form of support for a historically black league, an act of civic solidarity in a racially divided town. Indeed, some of these parents from other areas coach in First String as a show of further support. And, unlike Jackie Robinson West, First String is only modestly successful. In fact, it has not fielded a playoff team in recent memory because First String’s board is aware that players living outside its borders do not qualify for postseason play. The boundary crossing, in this case, really does seem to be motivated by racial solidarity.

Does racial solidarity factor into the case of Jackie Robinson West, and have there been “understandings” in the Chicago area that have permitted such arrangements? I do not know, and so far have been unable to find out. Since the story broke out, I have not been able to find any details on league boundaries and histories in Chicago (Jackie Robinson West’s website has since been taken down). However, the Little League statement on Jackie Robinson West speaks of “multiple issues with boundary maps and operational process with multiple leagues in Illinois District 4,” and of a variety of “misunderstandings in multiple league boundaries.” “Little League International,” it continues cryptically, “learned of several operational issues within the entire District that have occurred over the course of many years under different leadership at the District level.”

There is no doubt, in the case of Jackie Robinson West, that black players crossed league boundaries to play on the team. If this were simply about “ringers” being brought in to bolster the existing team roster, then we might expect to see white players as well. But that would not happen and, in fact, would not be tolerated. The real point here is not the use of “ringers,” but the existence of the long-sanctioned context for boundary crossing for black players. This, I strongly suspect, is what is behind the vague verbiage in the Little League report about a “history” of boundary issues in the area. This is not simply a case of bending the rules or even outright cheating, but rather a long history of racial segregation, racial segregation that can’t be neatly uncoupled from racial prejudice. In my opinion, the racial history explains the community norms around “flexible” boundary crossing, what some might more accurately label cheating.

There is a great irony, even hypocrisy, in Little League's coming down on Jackie Robinson West now—and only now—that they have won a national championship. Little League’s action is not about the enforcement of the rules. If it were, Little League, an $80 million organization, would do much more to address the problem of boundary enforcement and might even encourage districts to consider racial and socio-economic factors proactively when constructing boundaries for leagues.

Rather, this is likely about a white suburban league crying foul and taking down Jackie Robinson West, invoking rules that had been implicitly bent for decades. If Jackie Robinson West had been knocked out at the district level, they—and their fellow teams—would have happily continued the practice of boundary crossing. But they weren't. They won, and won big time. And so they paid. In Little League, it seems that all racial politics are local until you win a national championship.

Ned O’Gorman, associate professor of communication and Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy and the forthcoming The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination.