The Jackie Robinson West All Stars became a yellow beacon of hope last summer to a city plagued by violence — and a country torn apart over race.
But reality took hold on Chicago’s false moment of purity on Wednesday. Little League International announced it would strip the South Side baseball team of the national championship because the adults running the program tried to steal territory that was home to talented players from neighboring programs by falsifying and backdating maps.
That meant some of the boys on the team Chicago fell in love with — who were feted from Millennium Park to the White House — were not eligible to play on the team.
Now cries of racism are once again ringing through the city’s streets.
“We do know that we are champions,” Jackie Robinson West player Brandon Green said. “Our parents know we’re champions, the team’s parents know we’re champions and Chicago knows we’re champions.”
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President Barack Obama remains proud of the black little leaguers from his hometown, whom he hosted at the White House in November, a spokesman said. The team united people of all races just as protests erupted over the shooting death of a black teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The fact is, you know, some dirty dealing by some adults doesn’t take anything away from the accomplishments of those young men,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
Still, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the South Siders are also the victims of a “wholesale attack” on their integrity.
“Is this about boundaries,” he asked, “or race?”
Little League International President and CEO Stephen Keener said he was “almost offended” when allegations of racism came up during an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. Little League “knows no color, no culture,” he said.
Allegations first surfaced late last summer that Jackie Robinson West fielded its national championship team with ineligible players. At first, Little League International officials investigated from afar, Keener said. They made phone calls. And they looked at a boundary map dated May 1 to make sure the players met residency requirements. Everything looked in order.
But the whispering wouldn’t go away. So Keener said his organization decided to visit Chicago. And in a series of face-to-face meetings on Jan. 31, Keener said they learned Illinois District 4 Administrator Michael Kelly didn’t follow proper procedure when Jackie Robinson West’s boundary map was redrawn and approved.
The new map allegedly stole territory from three neighboring leagues — the Roseland, Rosemoor and South Side little leagues. That map was sent to Little League to rebut allegations of cheating, Keener said. But officials learned during the January meetings that Kelly backdated it to make it “legitimate for the 2014 season.”
And then, when the allegations against Jackie Robinson West began to “gather some steam,” Jackie Robinson West officials allegedly asked the Roseland, Rosemoor and South Side leagues to cede their territory. All three refused, Keener said.
Rosemoor Little League Chairman Ralph Peterson denied that happened.
“We were not expecting such an outpouring or an earful of information,” Keener said. “Because we had talked to a lot of these same people over the course of late October, into November, December and quite frankly they really didn’t want to share any information with us. They said, ‘You know, it was a great run for this team. We’re happy for the kids. We really don’t want to cause any trouble.’ ”
That resulted in a breakdown in an organization that Keener said relies on “principled, adult volunteer leadership at the local, the district and the state level.” Neighboring leagues knew they had kids on the Jackie Robinson West team, he said, but “they let it go.”
“They didn’t say anything,” Keener said. “And it just escalated and escalated and obviously, when they got to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, they essentially just joined in along with the celebration of the team. And we understand that.”
Now Kelly has been removed from his position. Jackie Robinson West manager Darold Butler has been suspended from Little League activity.
“They always will be champions in my eyes, and they’ll always be champions in a lot of people’s eyes,” Butler told the Sun-Times on Wednesday night. “They did it on the field in between the lines, and I’m the proudest coach in the world to be a part of a group of 13 boys like that.
“I’m still upbeat and happy like always. I’m still proud. That will never change.”
Jackie Robinson West will have its tournament privileges suspended until it appoints replacements for JRW President Anne Haley and Treasurer Bill Haley.
Little League will not force Jackie Robinson West to return the donations — estimated in the six figures — it received as a result of its now-defunct championship run.
“That is a JRW matter, and it is up to them to make that decision,” Little League spokesman Wayne Henninger said. “Ultimately, the money was given to them.”
The Little League CEO insisted his agency does not rely on whistleblowers to uncover allegations like those that toppled Jackie Robinson West. However, the Chicago team’s crown will now go to the Las Vegas team they beat in the national championship.
And Keener said Little League officials will visit that team’s western territory only if similar allegations surface there.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Parish said that’s not likely.
“Are you telling me that the same kind of obsession of stalking, going over this for months, would have happened — would have been done — if the Las Vegas team had won?” Pfleger said. “I’m sorry. I live in America. Maybe I’m tainted by that. But I believe that. And I believe that racism is in the midst of this thing.”
Pfleger and Jackson said Little League International chose the most severe kind of punishment.
“You need to reverse your decision, and you need to do it now,” Pfleger said, “unless you are willing to investigate every one of the 16 teams in the same way you did this team.”
Keener said that’s not feasible.
Venisa Green joined Jackson and Pfleger at a press conference at Rainbow PUSH and introduced herself as “the mother of Brandon Green, the United States champion catcher.” She said she was “blindsided” when she learned her son’s team had been stripped of its title on her car radio.
“It is amazing to me that whenever African-Americans exceed the expectations, that there is always going to be fault that is going to be found in what it is that we do,” Venisa Green said.
She said Little League purports to teach character and courage — and showed neither in its decision.
“The children and the parents and, to my knowledge, the league has done nothing wrong but keep African-American male children out of the street and out of the grave and out of prison,” Green said. “And for that, they should be applauded and they should not be punished.”
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick, Mitch Dudek, Lynn Sweet, Stefano Esposito