Don't believe The Big Lie of sports. Simply put, African-Americans haven't abandoned the sport that Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson integrated 68 years ago. Not only do African-Americans still follow baseball, but they still play it with gusto, even at the youngest of levels.
Exhibit A: That Jackie Robinson West team.
Yes, I feel your pain. It's unfortunate that officials of Little League International decided this week to strip those involved with this Chicago-based team of the national title they won last summer in thrilling fashion. What a neat story, and it went beyond balls and strikes. They became the 11, 12 and 13-year-old kids they were by going bonkers after victories, but they were strikingly composed in defeat. For one, they kept their tears to a minimum after dropping the Little League World Series to a South Korean team, and then they smiled while teaching the winners a variety of American-styled handshakes.
This storybook season continued for the Jackie Robinson West players with a trip to the White House, where they met Barack Obama, the first African-American U.S. president. But fairy tales often have a wicked witch. This one came in the form of those Little League International officials. They punished Jackie Robinson West after it was discovered that team officials manipulated boundaries in order to bring ineligible players to their roster. Just so you know, this happens often in Little League. This even happened during the 1960s, when I played for my father's Little League team in South Bend, Ind., where certain neighborhood teams were stuffed with more talent than others. Suddenly, a wonderful shortstop living across the street from you would find himself listed as a resident in the home of his grandmother on the other side of town -- you know, the side that needed a wonderful shortstop.
The breaking of Little League rules wasn't appropriate then, and it isn't now. It's just that fairy tales have a happy ending, and this one regarding the Jackie Robinson West team is ongoing.
Take, for instance, The Big Picture, which is more significant than The Big Lie or anything else in this controversy. Many of Chicago's African-American communities are rocked by gang wars and poverty issues. Even so, here was a group of African-American youngsters (apparently from regions in and around that of Jackie Robinson West) ignoring the woes of their environment to play our national pastime and to excel while doing so. Which destroys a huge chunk out of The Big Lie of sports, and just isn't the case in Chicago.
I live in Atlanta, the hometown of Marquis Grissom. The former Braves outfielder has spent years running a highly successful youth baseball program loaded with African-Americans. He never lacks for participants for the teams involved with what he calls Marquis Grissom Baseball Association Inc. Grissom and his staff not only teach baseball skills that have led to more than 70 of their players getting drafted by Major League teams, they prepare youth for college standardized tests. They also give out college scholarships as much as $5,000 apiece.
Grissom held the annual awards banquet for his organization last month at the 755 Club at Turner Field, and it was sold out. Among those joining the slew of African-American youth at the event were nationally known African-American celebrities and athletes from all different sports.
Baseball still matters to African-Americans, alright.
Ever hear of Mo'ne Davis? She was the star of the Little League World Series last year as a pitcher for her Philadelphia team, and she is African-American. She made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and she donated her jersey to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She also threw out the ceremonial first pitch during Game 4 of the World Series last year in San Francisco. If that isn't enough, she will participate this weekend in New York in a celebrity basketball game associated with the NBA All-Star Game.
If baseball doesn't matter anymore to African-Americans, why is there an Andrew McCutchen, who ranks among the most complete players in the Major Leagues? He is 28, with four All-Star Game appearances and a National League MVP Award on his resume. There also are the young and gifted likes of 24-year-old Billy Hamilton with the Reds and 26-year-old Dee Gordon with the Marlins, and they both are African-American.
The same goes for Torii Hunter and Jimmy Rollins, both accomplished veterans, both splendid ambassadors of the game.
Elsewhere, Major League Baseball is in the 26th year of its diversity-centered program called RBI, which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. Rollins is an RBI graduate, along with other African-American standouts such as Carl Crawford, CC Sabathia and Justin Upton. In addition, since Major League Baseball opened its first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., in 2006, it has built others in Cincinnati, Houston and New Orleans. Those academies have attracted more than 8,000 youth overall.
There also is Jerry Manuel, the former Major League player, coach and manager, who is now in charge of baseball's Diversity Task Force. Said Manuel this week to the New York Times of the Jackie Robinson West team, "I think once you witness what we witnessed with that group from Chicago, the way they played and even the sportsmanship and enthusiasm, that kind of stays with you more than the legalities of where they came from."