The CEO of an adjoining Little League to beleaguered Jackie Robinson West has turned the tables to charge youth baseball’s governing body with erratic handling of the JRW controversy.
Ralph Peterson, who has run the Rosemoor Little League on Chicago’s South Side since 2012, said Little League International chief Stephen Keener needs to review the process of vetting players and league boundaries before he throws his version of the death penalty at programs like JRW.
“Before [teams advance] to the tournament, everything has to be approved by Little League,” said Peterson, placing blame on an organization that just celebrated its 75th birthday. “If there was a problem, it has to start from the top down. Before Little League can do anything, they need to suspend some of their own people because of the things that happened.”
Peterson’s vent is the latest aftershock of Little League International stripping JRW of the U.S. championship it won in August. JRW’s title garnered national acclaim for the team due to the uniqueness of its roster—an all-black squad hailing from Chicago's embattled South Side. And it was the city—its athletes, community leaders, politicians, the mayor, the president—that embraced the team as a beacon of sorts.
However, tipped off by Chris Janes, the vice president of nearby Evergreen Park Athletic Association—whom JRW beat 45-2 earlier in the season, leading some to question motive—Little League’s investigation led it to conclude that JRW officials knowingly fielded players who lived outside the team’s residential boundaries and then tried to cover up their deception, a violation of league rules.
In effect, the claim is that JRW sought to field a superteam. The governing body has suspended JRW's manager, Darold Butler, and director Bill Haley (son of founder Joseph Haley).
“You were with us then, and we are asking you to be with us now,” said Haley at a recent press conference.
The defrocking of the team has been the No. 1 conversation topic in Chicago since its announcement Feb. 11. Outraged or saddened that the kids are paying for adults’ mistakes, Chicagoans are planning protests. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition will lead a rally Saturday.
Some purists have supported Keener’s decision, but chunks of public opinion have exonerated the players. Critics like Peterson have garnered some interesting support from high places in baseball.
Chicago Cubs Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Billy Williams believe Keener unfairly punished JRW’s players.
“Absolutely,” Dawson responded when asked if Little League International should have allowed JRW to keep its title. “Little League dropped the ball, first of all, by not verifying the boundaries. Everybody wants that little extra edge to try to win. And it’s no surprise that not only this particular team [extended boundaries], but they all do it. They all try to get that little extra edge to be competitive.”
Said Williams: “[The penalty] was a little bit too much for the kids. They played their hearts out. They did what they could to win. They had no conception of what was going on. [Little League] is punishing kids who have celebrated winning the Little League World Series. I think the kids suffered because somebody made a mistake. I just think it was too harsh of a penalty.”
This situation seems headed for even more controversy for the governing body if—and likely when—other leagues’ transgressions are brought to light.
Recently, Chicago ABC affiliate WLS-TV interviewed Renee Cannon-Young. She said her son, Jacoby, was recruited to play in southwest suburban Evergreen Park’s Little League, an outfit outside of the district in which they live—a transgression Keener’s staff and Evergreen’s Janes said JRW was guilty of committing.
“Hypocrisy” is an accusation being frequently levied at all parties involved.
“Little League should be investigating all 16 (World Series) teams,” said Peterson. “Now [that] Evergreen Park is accused of improprieties, as well, obviously, to get to this point, something must have happened in Little League where they failed. How can Stephen Keener make this decision without looking at Little League first and going and investigating all the teams involved?”
Little League International spokesman Brian McClintock fielded questions about Peterson's comments at his invitation. He released the following statement:
Little League International stands by the difficult decision that was announced on February 11. As Jackie Robinson West Little League has retained counsel, we will not be granting any additional media interviews or issuing additional public statements for the time being. Little League International will be working with its counsel to ensure Jackie Robinson West Little League officials and their attorney are fully educated regarding the factual basis of the decision.
“Little League dropped the ball,” said Dawson, upset with Keener’s handling and what he perceives to be Janes’ underhanded tactics. “All this stuff is supposed to be verified before the tournament starts, not after the fact because some scumbag wants to take the initiative to blow the whistle because his particular product couldn’t make it out of the city.”
Little League International’s detractors have also called the organization opportunistic, some going so far as saying it turned a blind eye to any JRW malfeasance while riding a cash cow.
“When you start looking at the money generated, I think Mr. Keener waited until some checks were cashed from several places,” said Peterson. “The amount of money Mo’ne Davis and Jackie Robinson generated for Little League was astronomical this year. I think they were tremendous stories that Little League capitalized off it. I think Little League held off as long as possible trying not to make this decision.”
Little League and broadcast partners ABC and ESPN enjoyed massive viewership jumps in 2014 compared to the previous two seasons. According to Nielsen, the 2014 U.S. championship game gained nearly two million viewers from in 2013. The average 2014 LLWS game saw about a 90 percent increase from 2012.
Little League also enjoyed a larger national profile, with JRW being welcomed enthusiastically by President Obama. Keener, whose organization spent $18,000 to fly the team and coaches to Washington, D.C., for three days, attended a reception in the Oval Office a couple of weeks after Obama asked to meet the club at a political rally at Chicago State University.
Little League championship teams normally are not received in the Oval Office itself. But Obama has an interesting backstory with JRW. While first running for the Illinois Senate in 2004, he served as grand marshal of JRW’s then-annual season-kickoff parade on the South Side. Emil Jones, who helped found JRW in 1971, also served as Obama’s political mentor in the Illinois Senate two decades ago.
The access Obama provided JRW to his inner sanctum could not have reflected more positively on Little League International.
“He opened up a door to his private study,” Keener said in a recent interview before the controversy broke. “Michelle Obama leaned over to me and a member of our board and said, ‘Oh, boy, not many people get to go in there.’ He took those kids into his private study and showed a photo of himself with Nelson Mandela, and explained the significance of Mandela and what he meant to African-Americans.
“I was thinking as this went on, this moment may not really resonate with them right now. But later in their lives I hope they’ll appreciate the significance of the fact that, by virtue of playing Little League Baseball, they were given a chance to visit the Oval Office and, more important, hear a firsthand history lesson by the president of the United States that directly impacts their lives. It just resonated with me.”
Keener concluded that JRW was a team that “seems to be doing the right things.” They were “a great bunch of kids.”
Or consider that, one month before the White House visit, Keener was part of ceremonies honoring JRW and Mo’ne Davis before Major League Baseball's World Series in San Francisco.
He was impressed at the “deafening” ovation given the young achievers, saying, “When we walked off the field after the ceremony, (incoming MLB commissioner) Rob Manfred said to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it, but you’ve got to find a way to bottle this.’”
In a way, the loss of its title may have renewed JRW’s appeal for a Round 2 of adulation. One parent said the team has received an invitation to appear on The Tonight Show.
Bill Haley has faced a maelstrom of criticism for opening a venerable organization like JRW and its innocent kids to such risk. But even Peterson, someone reportedly on the receiving end of JRW encroachment, says Haley has done far more good than not for his players and the community. His description of Haley makes the latter’s actions that led to the title-stripping all that more puzzling.
“I think JRW is a great organization,” Peterson said. “I grew up and played in JRW until I was 10 years old. Bill Haley ran a first-class organization. JRW has played an integral role in Rosemoor’s rebuilding. We were down to one team in 2011. JRW took us in and had interleague play with us. When Rosemoor went into the district tournament, Rosemoor wouldn’t have been able to play. JRW had a big heart. Bill Haley covered the umpires’ fees.”
But now, it seems that this recent controversy will—just or unjust—be on JRW’s epitaph.
George Castle is a Chicago-based journalist and baseball historian.