Castle, George. Jackie Robinson West: The Triumph and Tragedy of America’s Favorite Little League Team. Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2016. Pp. 272.
Reviewed by Leslie Heaphy
George Castle uses his research and writing skills to offer a readable, informative exploration of the lovable Little League team that rose to fame in 2014 – Jackie Robinson West (JRW). He not only tells the story behind the rise and fall of the team that captured the hearts and imaginations of so many across America, but also challenges the typical stereotypes about an inner-city Little League squad.
Castle relies heavily on oral histories and documents provided by residents and former residents of Washington Heights on the far South Side of Chicago. Using their memories, as well as photos, letters, news articles, and more, Castle tells the story of a middle-class neighborhood that fully supported their children and all their activities, especially Little League baseball. The Little League program was built from the ground up and remained a family affair until the team was stripped of its World Series title. Joseph Haley started the program in 1971 and quickly built a strong league with over 600 players and more than forty teams. Haley worked with the broader community and local politicians to build the stadiums and fields. As Castle tells the story, it becomes clear this team’s rise was not the rags-to-riches story presented by the press. Their story is still remarkable, albeit not in the ways expected.
Castle does not take a simple chronological approach to JRW’s rise and fall. His fifteen chapters tell a story of a community as much as the story of a ball club. He begins in Chapter One by connecting the trajectory of this club with other stories Chicago baseball and Chicago politics. He also introduces readers to some of the key adults involved, helping the reader understand why winning would become more important than the boys and the game. According to Castle, the decline of the JRW program and the loss of revenue were key developments, encouraging ill-advised decisions that eventually would lead to the investigation that stripped JRW of its title. In each succeeding chapter, Castle mixes baseball stories with community concerns, as well as with happenings in Chicago and the country. He shows that the story of this team is bigger than baseball. Cheryl Patterson, Beverly Harris, and Saundra and Ed Bishop serve as the chief storytellers.
In Chapter Three, Castle turns to the team and its players. He credits the attention to JRW to the attitude and character of the boys. They were smart, respectable, and funny; the press loved them. That they did not fit the popular perception about inner-city kids, and also played great ball, made them America’s team. Castle argues that their successes became an important story at a time when America needed a feel-good story. Chapters Four and Five explain the rise of Washington Heights, focusing on the community’s deep, long-standing pride. The families left other neighborhoods to get away from the crime that was so rampant in Chicago. The parents took control of their own streets and created an organized watch patrol. They also made sure the local police to not ignore their community. And it worked. The early success attracted middle-class African American families and helped the community and its children’s programs grow.
Chapters Six and Seven return to baseball and explain how Haley built the program. Castle emphasizes the expectations that were created, expectations of success not failure. These beliefs influenced the community, as well as each young man on the team. Each boy had big dreams that went beyond baseball, although they believed a Little League World Series would help them get there. The next three chapters give readers a personal perspective of the players and their families. Castle does not try to give a basic biography of each player; instead, he chooses stories that seem to capture the essence of the club. He begins with the story of JRW catcher Brandon Green, highlighting how his family supported his growth as a baseball player. Pierce Jones, leading hitter for JRW during the series, is shown to be a young man wise beyond his years. His parents were both sergeants in the police department and taught him self-reliance. A smart and athletically gifted young man, Trey Honduras presented himself as quirky, funny, and smart during the team’s run to the World Series.
Castle continues their story with their visit with President Obama. He then follows with a chapter discussing the declining numbers of African Americans in baseball. Castle points out that JRW, at least for a time, seemed to defy that idea, appearing to open opportunities for other black teams. Castle then aims to refute another stereotype, focusing on the important bond between fathers and sons in the next chapter. According to Castle, such bonds played a major role in JRW’s successes, regardless of expectations. Castle then closes the book with the life lessons that come from baseball. He also argues that Little League officials need to take responsibility for what happened, suggesting they missed an opportunity to help the game by choosing not deflect punishment from young men who trusted adults to do right as they simply played the game they loved.
This book is a must read for any baseball fan, as well as anyone who wants to understand the connections between sports and daily life. Yet, while imparting life lessons, Castle provides no notes or bibliography for researchers, preventing further explorations by interested scholars. Despite this weakness, Castle still shares a story worth reading.
Dr. Leslie Heaphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Kent State University. An admitted New York Mets fan, Dr. Heaphy has published several works on women in baseball and on the Negro leagues.