CHICAGO (CBSNewYork/AP) — Little League International has stripped Jackie Robinson West of the national title that the Chicago team won last summer after an investigation revealed it had falsified boundaries to field ineligible players.
In a stunning Wednesday announcement that came months after the all-black team, whose ages ranged from 11 to 13 years, captured the attention of the country and the hearts of its hometown, the baseball organization said it also found that after the league had changed the boundaries, some team officials went to surrounding leagues to convince them to go along with what they'd done.
"For more than 75 years, Little League has been an organization where fair play is valued over the importance of wins and losses," Little League International president and CEO Stephen D. Keener said in a statement. "This is a heartbreaking decision. What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome."
The team has been suspended from Little League tournament privileges until new leadership is found. The team's manager, Darold Butler, is also suspended, and an administrator from the district that includes Jackie Robinson West has been removed from his position, according to the statement.
The march of the team riveted the city, all the way to its loss in the world championship game to South Korea, and when it was over, thousands of people lined Chicago's streets to catch a glimpse of the boys as they were paraded by bus from their South Side baseball field to a downtown park. There were countless heartwarming stories about the team, including an effort by major league players to contribute money so the parents in the blue collar community could attend the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and another about Cubs players huddled around a television watching the team during a rain delay at Wrigley Field. The team was treated to a trip to the major league World Series and to the White House to meet President Barack Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama.
"As our Little League operations staff learned of the many issues and actions that occurred over the course of 2014 and prior, as painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program," Keener said. "No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries."
In October, the organization launched an investigation when a coach from the nearby suburb of Evergreen Park alleged that Jackie Robinson West had violated rules by poaching top suburban players.
"Eleven, 12 years old – which is where one of my kids is at – they know wrong when they see it," Evergreen Park Little League vice president Chris Janes told WBBM-TV, CBS2 Chicago. "And for us to turn our head to it and not do anything about it – it's sending the wrong message to them."
The story, which was first reported by DNAinfo.com, appeared to end in December when the national organization said it had uncovered no violations. But the organization said it would reopen the investigation if new information surfaced. About that same time, the organization learned of questions about boundary maps involving multiple leagues, and the investigation resumed.
"Little League International ... learned that Jackie Robinson West Little League knowingly expanded its boundaries to include territory that belonged to other leagues in the district without the approval from the other leagues or the Little League International Charter Committee" and used the "falsified boundary map for their 2014 tournament," the organization said.
Janes said he was not surprised by the league's decision.
"It's a sad ending. … And it stinks that the kids get caught in the middle of this, and it stinks that their names are associated with it, but again there were rules, and Jackie Robinson broke them, and they used kids to do it," Janes said. "At the end of the day, they were just pawns in a much bigger game, and it's unfortunate. I became a closet fan just watching those guys play. They seemed super charismatic, really bright; very likeable kids. People took advantage of them."
But as CBS2's Otis Livingston reported, the Rev. Jesse Jackson claimed there may be more to the story than geographical boundaries.
"Is this about boundaries, or race?" Jackson said.
Jackson was joined Wednesday by some players and parents from the Jackie Robinson West team, reported Mike Krauser of WBBM Newsradio in Chicago.
"We know that we're champions, our parents know that we're champions and the team's parents know we're champions and Chicago knows we're champions," said JRW catcher Brandon Green.
Green said the players did nothing wrong as he stood with his mother, Jackson and social activist Rev. Michael Pfleger at the headquarters of Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH Coalition.
"It is amazing to me that whenever African-Americans exceed the expectations, that there is always going to be fault," Venisa Green said.
Venisa Green said Little League officals were bullied into taking away JRW's championship.
"Little League says that they teach character and they teach courage, well this isn't an act of courage and it sure isn't an act of character," she said.
Pfleger said the Little League should reverse its decision at once.
"I know this is America, and I know racism runs deep in the DNA of America," he said. "What this individual of Evergreen Park has continued to pursue has both been mean-spirited and has been personal. I can't help but wonder the question if the same thing would have been done with another team from another place; another race."
League officials did not immediately return calls for comment. Throughout the investigation, the team has maintained that no cheating occurred.
This is the third time in the 68-year history of the Little League World Series that Little League International had vacated wins after an investigation had revealed wrongdoing. In 1992, a team from the Philippines was disqualified and in 2001 a team from the Bronx was disqualified.
(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
for more features.