Chicago saluted its newest sports heroes, the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, on a South Side ballfield yesterday. First, though, came the politicians -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and others, all warming themselves in the athletic acclaim of 11- and 12-year-old boys.
The crowd grew restless waiting for the talking to stop so the players, winners of the U.S. Little League championship, could be introduced.
“Oh, I wish they’d just shut up and get out,” said Maurice Chapman, a health care administrator, standing near the first base line of the tidy ball field in the Morgan Park neighborhood, about 13 miles south of downtown.
No public official had more to gain from connecting himself to the exploits of this all-black team than Emanuel, 54. The former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama is increasingly unpopular, according to recent polls, including one released Aug. 14 by the Chicago Tribune. He faces a potential challenge from Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who in 2012 led the city’s first public school strike in 25 years.
The day of yet another Jackie Robinson victory at the tournament, the head of the American Federation of Teachers told the Sun-Times that the union is prepared to spend $1 million to help Lewis, who is black, if she challenges Emanuel in February’s mayoral election.
The mayor’s 2013 push to save money by closing 49 under-performing elementary schools -- many on the South Side -- has helped sink his job approval rating among blacks to 25 percent from 40 percent a year ago, the Tribune poll found. They make up a third of the city’s population of 2.7 million people.
Chicago is a place where politics competes with sports as a favorite pastime, where people are as sophisticated about the behavior of their public officials as they are about the travails of the Major League Cubs or White Sox. So no one was shocked that Emanuel would wrap himself in the Little League team’s championship banner.
“I look at him as a politician whose best interests are served to identify with the team,” said Michael Kendrick, who was a member of the Jackie Robinson team that won a district championship in 1971. “But here in this park, it’s all about baseball, not politics.”
In a city that has partied nine times since 1991 over titles in professional basketball, hockey and baseball, this celebration had a distinctive sense of innocence because these South Side athletes will soon be fielding homework assignments.
“These are children, children doing something positive,” said Ella Wilson, 72, a retiree who lives about a mile from the team’s home field. “With so much chaos going on in our city, this is a great time for this. This is a catalyst for the future.”
The success of the Jackie Robinson team, named for the first black player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, is a bright spot in a city facing pension deficits that could drive it into insolvency. High violent crime rates remain a signature trait in much of the South Side, and while the number of killings citywide in 2013 was the lowest in almost five decades, it surpassed those of much larger New York and Los Angeles.
Yesterday’s four-hour long festivities began in Morgan Park, part of Chicago’s former South Side economic engine of steel mills, slaughterhouses and railroads. Today, much of the South Side grapples with the effects of depopulation and poverty. Jackie Robinson Park is in the 22nd police district, which saw shootings jump 14 percent this year through Aug. 17, compared with a 3 percent increase citywide, police data show.
From Morgan Park, the All-Stars boarded trolleys that took them on a parade route ending at Millennium Park, the lakefront centerpiece of Chicago’s downtown.
“The South Side is just not about bad things,” Marquis Jackson, who plays second base and pitches, told reporters after the celebration ended at the park. “Something good can come from the South Side of Chicago, period.”
The Jackie Robinson team lost the world championship game to South Korea on Aug. 24. The players and coaches returned to Chicago from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the next day to a hero’s welcome. As their plane taxied to the gate at Midway International Airport, firefighters shot a water-cannon salute over the aircraft.
During the team’s championship run, Emanuel arranged watch parties for residents to view the games on TV. In the 10 days preceding the homecoming celebration, the mayor issued 23 press releases hailing the team’s success or announcing events to honor them.
The watch parties gave more people a chance to be involved with the team, said Benita Bush, 64, who has been following Jackie Robinson West since her son, now 35, was in Little League.
Jannita Caine, 44, who grew up in a public housing project on the West Side, defended Emanuel’s enthusiasm for the team. She met him at one of the watch parties.
“We didn’t get into politics at all,” Caine said in an interview after the Millennium Park rally. “He was really genuine. He reacted to every play.”
Baseball wasn’t the only thing the Emanuel administration had to celebrate this week. It reported that the nation’s third-largest school system set a record graduation rate of 69.4 percent in the 2013-2014 school year. That was up from 65.4 percent the year before and 58 percent three years earlier.
Kenny Williams, executive vice president of the Chicago White Sox, who have played on the South Side for more than a century, alluded to the importance of community in the city’s well-being as he applauded the team’s success.
“Pick up a ball or a glove, a book, a paint-stick, a science project, something. Put down the guns,” Williams, who played in the Major Leagues from 1986 to 1991, said to the cheers of the estimated 10,000 gathered in Millennium Park. “The other stuff that you see reported, the perception of what’s happening in Chicago, that ain’t us. These young men gave you a glimpse into who we really are.”