By Dave Wischnowsky
The WISCH LIST
I love Little League Baseball, and always have.
My dad, Joe, was the winning pitcher on the 1958 Kankakee Jaycees All-Star team that was the first from Illinois to win the United States Championship at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
His stories of that squad sparked my lifelong love affair with the game, and over the past couple of weeks it’s been wonderful to see so many people from all over fall in love with Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West – the latest Illinois team to win the U.S. Championship in Williamsport.
With soul-sucking news about shootings and violence pouring out from Chicago’s South Side on a daily basis, JRW has emerged as the feel-good story that the city needed to pump it up this summer. But the all-black Little League team from Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood may also be the feel-good story that Major League Baseball has needed too.
At least, that’s my hope. Because, I’d like to see MLB take the ball that JRW hit and run with it by using their run as a launching pad to better promote baseball among black youths throughout the country.
In 1981, the share of African-American players on Major League rosters reached a peak of 18.7 percent, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. Today, however, blacks accounted for only 8.3 percent of players on opening day rosters, the least since 1958.
For the sport of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, that statistic is a sad one, and last year Aaron told USA Today, “I think Jackie certainly would be disappointed in the way things are today, especially for African-Americans. Let’s face it, baseball was down, and when he came along, he put a big spike into baseball with the way he played, and along came other great black ballplayers.”
Robinson, however, no doubt would have been thrilled if a Little League team named after him was able to put another big spike into baseball. JRW has that potential, if MLB takes steps to maximize it.
In today’s majors, the 25-man rosters of the 30 ball clubs are quite diverse in other ways with players of Latin descent having risen from 12 percent in 1984 to 28.4 percent this season. And player development in foreign countries continues to grow, with the Cubs last year opening a multimillion-dollar training academy in the Dominican Republic.
Here at home, MLB has put at least $30 million into programs such as R.B.I. – Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities – which helps to build new fields and repair old ones, and puts on tournaments for boys and girls from 5 to 18. But, surely, it can do much more to help stem the tide of the vanishing African-American player.
Detroit Tigers president Dave Dombrowski heads a MLB diversity task force reportedly looking into what the league can do to reverse the trend, and I’d suggest considering the establishment of inner-city American baseball academies, like those being built in the Dominican.
This month, a group of black MLB stars pitched in to send several Jackie Robinson West parents to Williamsport for the Series. A wonderful gesture, although African-American Baltimore Orioles star Adam Jones told Yahoo Sports that in addition to financial support, black players need to also continue to show their faces in their communities.
On Wednesday, prior to the Jackie Robinson West rally at Millennium Park, White Sox president Kenny Williams promoted baseball by pointing out how, unlike basketball and football, there are no size prerequisites.
He didn’t say that baseball is also a safer sport than football, but I will. I also think it’s still our nation’s greatest sport, something that JRW seemed to remind many people in communities, both black and white.
Now it’s up to MLB to keep doing so.