Jackie Robinson West Little League a tribute to 1 man’s love for his community, children

The Jackie Robinson West Little League success story can be written many ways.

These days, as the team from Chicago plays at the Little League Baseball World Series, many focus on the social impact the team is making. Thirteen African-American players and three African-American coaches are possibly inspiring an urban baseball revival. Chicago is the first Little League Urban Initiative team to reach the Series since Harlem, New York, in 2002.

Some focus on the team overcoming odds and conquering adversity.

But the league never set out to make a social statement. It never set out to be the Rocky Balboa of Little Leagues.

At its heart, the Jackie Robinson West Little League is a love story.

It is the late Joe Haley’s love of his community, love of children, love of family. It is Haley’s entire family continuing this labor of love and giving Chicago youths an opportunity that might not otherwise exist. It is about the love a family receives watching kids have fun and flourish year after year.

“He wanted to use baseball as a vehicle, as a means to provide a positive for children to build friendships and as something fun to give them that they could enjoy,” said Haley’s wife, Annie, the league’s president. “He always believed the children were our means to the future and they always had a chance if they believe in themselves and we believe in them to make it happen.”

Joe Haley founded the Jackie Robinson West Little League in 1971. It became the first youth baseball organization in Chicago.

To say it had humble beginnings would be an understatement. The league consisted of one team that year.

Flash forward 43 years. More than 500 players registered to play this spring and the league has teams in all divisions. What started out as a one-man show has become an efficiently run Illinois power. Somewhere Joe Haley must be smiling because his league has become one of the country’s best.

“He just wanted something that would give the kids a positive outlook after school,” said Haley’s son, Bill. “This kind of success is just like the icing on top of the icing on the cake. The kids have been successful and have always stayed true to the basic mission of the league.”

Bill was 6 when his father started the league and he has watched it grow since its inception. He is like many in the league who grew up with it, played in it and have stayed with it. He has followed in his father’s footsteps, coaching in the league, and was an assistant on last year’s team that reached the Great Lakes Regional championship.

As more people embraced Jackie Robinson West, it rapidly became a power. By 1983, Joe coached it to the Little League World Series. Chicago’s finest finished fifth in the world, dropping its opening game to eventual world champion Marietta, Georgia.

The league really never has slowed down since, winning 23 state championships. It also has received a boost from being part of the Urban Initiative Program, which provides assistance packages for eligible leagues that aid the local volunteer group with equipment acquisition, capital improvement cash grants, field development and renovation, access to Little League Baseball and Softball Education and Training programs, advocacy and networking.

“We have great volunteers. Everybody helps all the time,” said Jackie Robinson West manager Darold Butler, a league alum. “It’s a quality league with quality people who always are trying to make it better each and every year. It’s a pride thing. We take pride in making Jackie Robinson West better each day than it was the day before.”

The major division all-stars have won four of the last five Illinois state championships and the other age groups are thriving as well.

Therein lies a big part of the league’s success. Every year the number of T-ballers, ages 6 and 7, has been increasing. Those kids are coached as well as the older kids and once they start playing in Jackie Robinson West, they often stick around.

“We start the kids really early. T-ball is our biggest level in enrollment. We try to keep it fun and try to teach the kids the rules and teach them fundamentals,” Bill Haley said. “We catch them at an early age so when they’re 8, they’re accomplished. To have success in baseball, you have to be confident, so that’s been our little method to catch them early. If you come to baseball at 11 or 12, it’s a sport that is so difficult to learn quick and if you don’t have a lot of success it can become frustrating; so we’ve been able to start young, keep it fun and have tried to instill a love of the game.”

To see that love is to watch the kids play with unbridled enthusiasm. To see that love is to spot former league standouts reach high levels – four graduates have competed in the College World Series – and still come back to watch games and help out.

Now all those who have played or are playing in Jackie Robinson West are watching this Series team. The major league Cubs and White Sox are being pushed off the radar in Chicago for the time being and Jackie Robinson West is the favorite team.

What started out as one man’s vision has become something special that Chicago and the entire state of Illinois is gravitating toward. After Jackie Robinson West rallied from 5-0 and 7-3 deficits to defeat Indiana, 12-7, in last Saturday’s Great Lakes championship, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn declared Saturday “Jackie Robinson West Little League Champions Day” in the state.

“The courage to persevere and hard work displayed by the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team and coach Darold Butler has once again reminded all of Chicago the very best of what we hope (for) from our local kids,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement Saturday. “I want the whole team and coach Butler to know that Chicago is rooting for them, and as they take the field for the Little League World Series, they will be taking the best wishes of an entire city with them.”

Although they are not focused on this, those same kids likely are boosting the hopes and dreams of future baseball players.

Attracting Little League players in urban areas often has been difficult. In Chicago alone, basketball is the most popular outlet as residents such as Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker have become local heroes while excelling in the NBA and NCAA.

Jackie Robinson West making this run only can bolster the future of youth baseball in cities.

It is not just that Jackie Robinson West is winning while playing on national television, outscoring six Great Lakes opponents, 61-19, and reaching the Series undefeated. It is how it is winning. It does so with smiles on the players’ faces and while displaying excellent sportsmanship, earning fans at every stop along the journey.

“We’re trying to do something positive for Chicago and we noticed it with the things we did last year. More people were signing up for baseball, and not just in our league, but in a lot of the leagues around here,” Butler said. “The numbers are up everywhere around the city of Chicago. Hopefully after this year, watching the games on TV, the numbers will continue to rise in our part of the city.”

“A big part of our success is our kids have fun playing and city kids that will watch city kids across the country will see it’s a lot of fun fielding ground balls and being on the mound,” Bill Haley said. “They are seeing kids having a good time playing well and competing and are seeing what can be accomplished with hard work.”

Joe Haley’s love has become contagious. It flowed to his wife and child who helped him spread it throughout the league and city. They planted the seeds and have watched Jackie Robinson West grow and spread its mission throughout the lives of countless individuals. Even President Barack Obama has a Jackie Robinson West jacket.

This love story keeps evolving, keeps building, too. The roots these days have spread worldwide and created a true Chicago success.

And as good as it is today, tomorrow might be even better for players from Chicago.

“It has made a tremendous impact on children in the community. Everywhere you go in the state you run into people who say they played in the Jackie Robinson West Little League or they know somebody who played and they all have good memories,” Annie Haley said. “I think when these kids get older they will realize what has just happened. Right now they’re excited because they know, ‘I’m going somewhere, I’m going to continue playing and the season is not over.’

“As they grow and mature they are going to realize this is really remarkable,” she added.