Last year, it took 10,000 flyers circulated throughout the community to get 300 kids to sign up to play baseball with the Garfield Park Little League, said Frank Brim, the league’s president.
“Now kids are calling us,” he said. “In January and February last year, we didn’t have many kids registered. This year, we’ve got as many kids registered as we had playing all last year. The numbers are increasing, the awareness is increasing, more people are excited—our kids deserve it.”
Frank Brim knows the reason for this—Jackie Robinson West winning the Little League national championship last summer and sparking international media frenzy in the wake of their spellbinding romp through the Little League World Series. He also knows what happened earlier this year, when the first all-black team to accomplish such a feat had it officially stripped from them by Little League International.
But Brim doesn’t really pay attention to those formalities. He said the team’s real legacy isn’t a trophy or official recognition, but in the living, breathing enthusiasm it’s generated on the West Side and throughout the city for the sport he loves.
“Jackie Robinson West has always tried to do the right thing and that mission hasn’t changed,” Brim said. “In 1971, I started playing baseball with them. That’s why I’m doing what we’re doing on the West Side now. We want to give our kids the same opportunity I had—which was to learn life skills through baseball. I don’t think there would be a Garfield Park Little League without Jackie Robison West.”
Brim said he’s not at liberty to discuss the details of the cheating allegations, but said that he supports JRW, and its president Bill Haley.
Little League officials accuse Haley and his fellow administrators of manipulating district boundaries so that players from other areas could be on the team. In addition to stripping JRW of its title, Little League also suspended Haley, team treasurer Anne Haley and team manager Darold Butler. Illinois District 4 administrator Mike Kelly was removed from his post.
“I’m not even concerned about the administrative stuff,” said Brim, who considers Haley a friend. “I know Bill and Mother Haley and I know they’re out working daily trying to provide an opportunity for those kids to play. That community was changed by that program. We’re trying to do the same thing over here and that’s change our landscape through baseball.”
One significant new part of that changed landscape includes Curtis Granderson Stadium, the $10 million state-of-the-art baseball facility owned by the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The university has allowed the Garfield Park Little League to practice and play games on the new field, which opened last April. The stadium was a recent recipient of the Editor’s Choice award from Ballpark Digest and was considered “One of the Best New Stadiums for 2014” by Stadium Magazine, according to the university’s athletic website.
“We’re indoors training in January and February,” said Brim. “That was unheard of when I played. In our community, most of the gyms are just for baseball. Already, our fielding is getting better, our throwing is better—we’re becoming more efficient in the field because of this stadium.”
For Brim, however, the new stadium and baseball’s newfound popularity on the West Side should also be considered in light of a much more disturbing reality that JRW’s success ironically lays bare.
“It took [JRW] 41 years to get there,” Brim said. “And now, are people saying we’re only valuable when we can win a national championship? We think our kids are valuable right now.”
Brim emphasized that the JRW model hasn’t been tainted by these most recent cheating allegations. It’s a model he’s trying to implement with his kids, because he said it’s a model that still works.
“We’re creating a community of baseball people. We go on field trips and celebrate each other’s birthday parties. We’re socializing 365 days a year now. When I was playing with Jackie Robinson West, we went roller skating,” said Brim.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. Mr. Haley had a great mission back then. I think he started [JRW] because he wanted his kids to play baseball in an area that was changing. He did a great job and nobody can take that from them. It’s an awesome program run by awesome people. But I have to be concerned about what happens in Garfield Park more than with who lived where.”
The Garfield Park Little League is now taking applications. The cost is $80 for youth, ages 4 to 9, and $100 for those over 9 and up to age 18. For more information, visit www.gpleague.org or call Brim at (708) 443-2746.