I began playing baseball at the age of 8 on the Dolton Boys League, in the South Suburbs of Chicago. I knew nothing about the sport at all, but my family thought it was a constructive use of my time and my dad would eventually become one of my coaches. I would play until I was 15, and he went on with the league even longer, becoming a father figure to a lot of young Black boys within the community who didn’t necessarily have their own dads around.
That was important, but not unique. You see, that’s how all the coaches were when it came to Dolton Boys baseball. All of them were fathers and had a son or sons in the league as well. The mothers ran the concession stand and helped keep game day running smoothly.
We were a league of 500 Black youth that included Tee-Ball, Little League, PONY, and women’s softball teams. Needles Park was our Wrigley Field. It was the place we called home. Even people who had nothing to do with the league came up there to kick it. For our community, it was ‘the spot,’ and there were lots of loving adults around to make sure everyone was safe.
There were years when Jackie Robinson West didn’t have a structured league, and they had coaches and players who would have been in their ‘boundaries’ come to play with us. If you were Black and lived anywhere on the South Side or in the South Suburbs, you played Dolton Boys Baseball.
In 1999, the late Mayor Bill Shaw decided to make a business move and tore down our fields for a golf course. Despite the refusal of the EPA to greenlight the project, they still tore our fields down and bulldozed the pitching mounds. We couldn’t even play pick up baseball. Dolton’s solution was to have us play on two different fields within city limits, but neither could match our needs and the league never was the same after that. I lost my love for the game and I watched a lot of other kids fall right back into the streets baseball kept them out of. The park was connected to a playground and 3 basketball courts (which are still there), it was truly the heart of our community in many ways. When we lost that field, we lost so very much.
They destroyed not only our field, but our dreams. On a smaller scale, it felt reminiscent of what Chicago’s then-Mayor Daley began to do to the project buildings: tear a property down inhabited by Black folk, replace it with something more appealing to a higher social class.
The destruction of Dolton Boys left nowhere for Black boys from the South Suburbs to go for baseball. For a few of them, it seems that Jackie Robinson West became their only chance to play Little League. This wasn’t about cheating, or recruiting the best kids from outside of boundary lines for an unfair advantage, this comes down to opportunity. We have very limited resources when it comes to baseball. Very few places to play. Even MLB has acknowledged the challenges in getting Black youth to connect with the game and become ready for pro-ball as adults.
In my Little League years, I saw young kids fall in love with baseball and receive discipline that some of them lacked at home. It was bigger than the sport. Our league understood that and took kids from anywhere if they wanted to play. If Dolton Boys Baseball still existed, it seems fair to reason that the kids from the South Suburbs who played with Jackie Robinson West would have played there instead.
There are many “boundaries” that keep Black kids from playing sports and attending better schools. And for years, people have made the difficult decision to go around these boundaries in the interest of young people. To see the kids of Jackie Robinson West punished and embarrassed for nothing more than loving baseball and bringing pride to our city
The Boy Illinois is an independent recording artist from the South-East side of Chicago.