This is Shakeia Taylor’s first piece as part of her April Residency at FanGraphs. Shakeia is an avid baseball fan and baseball history enthusiast. Her main interests include the Negro Leagues and women in baseball. She has written for The Hardball Times and Complex. She hosts an annual charity bartending fundraiser for Jackie Robinson Day, all of tips and raffle proceeds of which are donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Though not from Baltimore, she’s still an Elite Giant. Shakeia can also be found on Twitter (@curlyfro). She’ll be contributing here this month.
Sports, for all their faults, are important for many. They’re important in a way we sometimes don’t talk about. One of my friends recently said to me, “Playing baseball as a kid probably saved my life.” It’s been on my mind ever since he said it, because I understand the sentiment. There are kids in many cities and towns across America who would say the same.
My friend, who grew up in a tough urban neighborhood, said baseball saved his life because it gave him something to do. It gave him something to focus on; it kept him off the street. Those statements hold true for many other kids.
I had complained about the lack of diversity in baseball for a long time. I had talked about how people of color and women and girls need better representation in the sport, and I’d done so until I reached a point of exhaustion. Then one day, I decided I would stop talking and try to do something about it.
It started with a Google search for the Little League regional office for my local area. Then came an email to that office with one request:
Hi there, I am interested in helping a Chicago Little League team who may be in need of additional support in the way of equipment and monetary donations. I am hoping you can put me in touch with a coach or two in the city who could use the assistance. I’m happy to answer any and all questions. Thank you in advance!”
My email was answered by Carlton Jones.
Jones is the district administrator for the North and West parts of Chicago, as well as parts of the South side. Jones also serves as the liaison between the leagues, the Central Region Little League HQ, and the International Headquarters in Williamsport. He has been involved with Little League since 2010, but he has served as a coach, manager, or board member in youth baseball since 2003.
“I wanted children from the North Side of Chicago to have the opportunity to enjoy little league baseball and compete in the LLWS tournament, which has five phases, the last two of which are televised.”
Jones’ district, Illinois Little League District 12, or IL-12, has a large geographical footprint. Literally every neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago is serviced. For the West Side, it’s everything north of Cermak. On the South Side, it includes Englewood, Bronzeville, the South Loop, Oakwood, Kenwood, and Morgan Park.
When asked about the current state of Chicago Little League, Jones tells me that “Chicago Little League is a Special Needs league that provides baseball opportunities for players 4-18 and 19-25 that would not be able to play without special accommodations. It was part of Horner Park North-West Little League until it became large enough to be its own league.”
According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, 9 million kids between the ages of seven and 17 played baseball in the United States in 2002, but by 2013, that figure had dropped by more than 41%. With participation on the decline, teams and leagues have been forced to either shut down or merge, further constricting access for poorer families and making the sport whiter and more affluent. Baseball is expensive, and that expense is having an adverse effect on the participation of Black and Latino Americans. You need equipment and uniforms. You need fees. You need money for transportation. Teams in economically disadvantaged areas are often forced to apply for grants and fundraise heavily in order to support kids who want to play.
“Our Little Leagues cost anywhere from $25-$50 for basic programming up to $300 for teams that play over a 30-game season,” Carlton explained. “Your typical travel team will cost a minimum of $800, although $1,500 is closer to reality. Include private lessons and special overnight tournaments, and travel ball for a 12-and-under will easily cost in the $3,000-$5,000 range.”
The burden of that expense contributes to the ethnic and racial disparity we see in professional baseball today. The 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball reveals the game to be overwhelmingly white. Among the players present on last season’s Opening Day active rosters, 31.9% were Latino and just 7.7% were African-American or African-Canadian. And while those levels are consistent with 201 6– and while the overall participation of non-white players is at an all-time high — they represent a marked drop from the peak of African-American participation in the sport in the mid-1970s, when approximately 27% of players were African-American.
The disparity extends to those who watch the game. As of 2013, 83% of MLB television viewers were white; just 9% were Black. Of that same group, 50% were 50 years or older. Seeing oneself reflected in the game isn’t the only reason people engage with baseball, but it creates an important, lasting link to the sport. And with the current viewing audience increasingly composed of a white and aging demographic, it is vital to the future health of the sport that kids of color and girls develop an interest the game and are able to sustain that interest.
MLB recognizes this and in 2017, along with USA Baseball, established the Dream Series. The objective of the Dream Series is not only to prepare young players for a future in baseball, but to increase diversity across the sport, particularly among pitchers and catchers. The 2017 season saw baseball’s 30 organizations opening the season with just 54 African-American pitchers and five African-American catchers in the minors. The multi-day event coincides with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, and players receive presentations on entering baseball out of high school and through college. Registration is free.
In recent years, the Dream Series has featured top prospects like Hunter Greene, who was taken second overall by the Reds in last year’s amateur draft. It is an important step, but it can’t serve everyone. Many of the players who are invited are well past Little League. MLB has endeavored to support youth baseball and softball in cities with its RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), but the need for programming targeted at communities of color persists, especially in neighborhoods like those served by Jones’ district.
After I reached out, Jones arranged a meeting with Vanessa Munoz of the Horner Park Thundercats and Luis Medina of Amundsen Park Little League, two administrators for teams that could use a lot of help. For the 2018 season, Horner Park has about 50 softball players in the 12-and-under group, and over 200 players in the high school aged group. For the Amundsen Park team, Jones and Medina are estimating 100-150 players. Both leagues are comprised primarily of Black and Latinx children.
For the last eight weeks, I have shared the stories of these two teams on Facebook and Twitter. Each needs to raise at least $1,000 to cover their charter and insurance fees. Translating that cost into equipment is difficult, as funding to pay for fees, as well as field equipment is needed. Initially, the response was one of excitement, but that hasn’t translated into significant donations. Money has been coming in slowly, but with the season fast approaching, both teams could use an influx of cash. To make the fundraising easier for those interested in donating, Vanessa and Luis have been using the cash app. The process has underscored the challenges these teams and communities face: scattered individual efforts and determined administrators like Carlton Jones, trying to stretch resources to serve as many as children as possible.
Despite the lack of funding, Jones remains hopeful for the future of Little League baseball in Chicago. “Little League is a leadership program that uses the vehicle of baseball and softball to mold the children of today into the future leaders of tomorrow,” he says. “The pride of wearing the LL Patch, representing your park during the tourney season, and being able to play with your friends means the world to these children, as the sport is their life and refuge during the summer. For the parents and community contributing to neighborhood and having something to bond together with is tremendous. One day, one of these leagues will go far in the tournament and make the city proud.”
I hope he is right, and that these teams can find the support they need to flourish. I think about my friend, whose life was perhaps saved by a game. I think about what it means for young kids of color to be able to look up at the majors and see faces that look like theirs. I wonder how long they’ll sustain that connection if the current demographic trends continue. I wonder how long baseball can sustain itself as costs mount, and the audience at home ages. I hope others will try to get more diversity on the field. The health of baseball in the US might depend on it, and a few young lives, too.