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Jackie Robinson West at LLWS: Another round of trailblazers?

Curtis Granderson Stadium

With Jackie Robinson West winning their first game in the Little League World Series, the issue of black baseball players is again part of the public debate — and, finally, in a good way.

It’s no secret that the number of blacks playing baseball is low: when the 2014 season started, only 8.3 percent of players identified themselves as black or African-American. That’s less than the all-time high of 19 percent, recorded in 1986. That’s why discussions of blacks in baseball usually is not good news: it’s usually a lament as to how the sport can attract them at a time when football and basketball seem like much more alluring pastimes. Baseball has done some things to attract youth in America’s cities: teams frequently sponsor playing fields, and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program has been a part of MLB Charities for 20 years.

But there are green shoots that could lead the way to a renaissance of baseball in the innter city. First, there are six players on Jackie Robinson West from the Amateur City Elite program, a Chicago White Sox program designed to foster interest in baseball among African-American kids. Second, this year saw the opening of Curtis Granderson Stadium at the University of Illinois-Chicago (shown above), a facility explicitly designed both to host college baseball as well as to be a center of youth baseball and services on Chicago’s South Side. From our opening-day visit:

Besides serving as the home of the Flames, Granderson Stadium will host high-school games (many have already been played) and be a venue for more than 38 youth-baseball organizations annually, providing for a safe and first-class experience. The plan is for events that also include academic and youth development as well as baseball.

Frank Brim, who heads the Garfield Park Little League, spoke of the ballpark’s impact on his program at the opening ceremonies. “We have 500 kids in our program, and we are grateful not only for the athletic programs, but the academic program as well,” he said. “It’s not all about baseball. It’s about developing our youth. We refuse to let the gangs outrecruit us.”

We refuse to let the gangs outrecruit us

That was the theme of the opening-day event, where plenty of youth-baseball volunteers were on hand, fully aware that the ballpark could fill an important spot in the neighborhood. It’s that attitude that led Granderson to contribute $5 million toward the $11 million ballpark cost, and the attitude that led the White Sox to sponsor a viewing party today at the team’s home, Jackie Robinson Field, complete with big screen, ballpark food and appearances from former White Sox players.

“This is a great way for the neighborhood and the city of Chicago to celebrate the accomplishments of this talented group of young men from the Jackie Robinson West Little League,” said Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the Chicago White Sox, in a press release. “We all are very proud of their accomplishments, and we are honored to co-host the Watch Party with Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel. Six players on the Jackie Robinson West team also play for the White Sox ACE program, so we are doubly proud of their tremendous accomplishments. These kids already are champions in our eyes before a single pitch is thrown in Williamsport.”

By the way, Jackie Robinson West handily won today, 12-2, to go 1-0 in the tourney.

RELATED STORIES: Curtis Granderson Stadium / University of Illinois at Chicago Flames


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