On Thursday, the Little League World Series kicked off in historic Williams-port, Pa. The round-robin format includes 16 U.S. teams and eight international squads. Earlier this month, California’s Pacifica entry upset top-seeded Hawaii before falling to Nevada, which will represent the West bracket.
This year’s LLWS has two backstories that should interest even non-baseball fans. One deals with gender, the other with race: the emergence of skilled girl players in what has traditionally been an all-male sport, and the success of Chicago’s all African-American team.
First, the most widely publicized Little League star is Pennsylvania’s Mo’Ne Davis, a female pitcher who tossed a three-hit shutout against Delaware in the regional final. Davis is the latest in a growing number of girls who have proven themselves since the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a ruling 40 years ago that allowed female players to compete against males. This year, Canadian Emma March will join Davis in their march toward Little League gender equality.
Davis and Roche’s success, as well as the others who preceded them, is consistent with Dr. David Popoli’s research conducted at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta. Popoli found that boys don’t separate themselves muscularly until age 15. Up to that point, girls can compete on a more or less even scale.
Second, baseball analysts note that Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West team is grabbing headlines at a time when black players’ representation in Major League Baseball is at its lowest level.
During the mid-1980s, blacks comprised about 20 percent of MLB rosters; on Opening Day 2014, the total stood at 8 percent. Front office executives hope that Jackie Robinson West’s success will inspire greater involvement among inner city African-American youths. MLB founded RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) to work with the Little League Urban Initiative and the Urban Youth Academy, with the collective goal of helping more blacks reach the big leagues.
The Jackie Robinson West kids, the first to make it to Williamsport in 31 years, have inspired beleaguered, drug-plagued, violence-wracked Chicago. Donations have poured in to send financially strapped parents to Williamsport. Specially designed $20 Jackie Robinson T-shirts sold out at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Chicago’s downtown Loop. And the Chicago White Sox hosted a giant watch party at Jackie Robinson West’s Morgan Park home field that will show the game on a big-screen television and provide free ballpark-style food.
Bill Haley, the Jackie Robinson West League director, said that his kids don’t see the LLWS as if they are underdogs or victims. The players, Haley said, aren’t trying to make a social or political statement, but rather to take advantage of excellent programs for our kids.
Said Haley, whose father founded the league in 1971, “I don’t want to put that extra pressure on them. (Drugs and violence) are not relevant issues for our babies.”
In Thursday’s first round, Chicago drubbed its Lynwood, Wash. opponent 12-2, setting off a huge and richly deserved celebration in Williamsport and back home in the Windy City.
Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Contact him at email@example.com.