WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier when he made his historic Major League Baseball debut 74 years ago. In recent times, less than 8% of MLB players are Black, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
Inspired by the decline of Black representation in today’s game, Bob Lutz would look to make baseball more accessible to all in Wichita.
“I’ve always thought that every kid should have the opportunity to play baseball,” said Lutz, the Founder and Executive Director of League 42. “It was getting to the point where that was not the case. It was becoming a quote-on-quote country club sport, expensive to play.”
Lutz’ idea of creating an affordable youth baseball league in Wichita’s inner city existed about two decades before it was set into motion.
“I was 58 years old at the time. I felt like the time is now. You’re going to let this wash away, so we did something,” said Lutz.
Lutz would make a post on Facebook with a call to action: “It’s time to take some action on starting a baseball league for inner city, urban kids. Who’s with me?”
Only five people showed up to the first meeting for League 42.
“I wasn’t deterred,” said Lutz. “Those five people had great energy about it. They were positive. We continued to meet.”
Lutz would seek out Larry Davis, the longtime director of McAdams Park, to create a space for baseball in urban Wichita.
“The fields weren’t being utilized or used,” said Larry Davis. “They needed a lot of repairs, revitalization. It was an eyesore, really. When he came to me, it was another way we could get the kids and the community involved in sports,” he said.
By the spring of 2014, League 42 had comprised a league of about 16 teams and 200 kids, giving any child the opportunity to play ball.
For just $30 per family, each player is given a full uniform, and all required equipment.
“I like to call it one of the best-kept secrets in our neighborhood,” said William Polite, the USD 529 Director of Equity, Diversity and Accountability.
League 42’s mission hits home for Polite, who grew up in Wichita’s inner city.
“I grew up in their neighborhood with a lot of great athletes… Barry Sanders being the most famous,” said Polite. “Baseball was really big in this community, then it died like it did in a lot of urban areas across the country. To see League 42 bringing baseball back with an emphasis on education is really exciting for me as a community member here,” he said.
One of the reasons that Polite was drawn to working in education, was due to what he experienced during his childhood.
“We lost a lot of our best athletes who got incarcerated, or in gangs, that could have been professional or, even more important, college athletes,” said Polite. “We’ve lost far too many.”
Now, Polite has dedicated his career to keeping students on the right track.
“Equity is giving every kid what they need, not necessarily the same thing,” said Polite. “When you come from that type of community, you really need those extra supports to keep you on track. Sometimes sports is that tool that can keep a kid on track, and out of trouble a lot of times.”
League 42 identified the natural tie with sports and education. In 2017, the group came to an agreement on a piece of land across from its complex at McAdams Park that can double as an education and baseball facility.
Opening for the 2022-23 school year, the 10,500 square-foot League 42 facility will include an indoor baseball training area and a computer lab.
“I’d love to live in a society that didn’t need what we’re doing… that kids had equal opportunities in every aspect of their lives,” said Lutz. “In the world in which we live, that’s not possible, so it’s important for us to step up in a way that can help kids find a path… we call it a base path to success.”
The facility will allow the nonprofit to follow its athletes through high school, helping them attain a high school diploma.
“If you can get kids that do love sports, and they have the education and the grades, and the proper educational background, it adds up to college scholarships,” said Polite. “At the end of the day, that’s my big reason. Students can use their athletic ability to pay for their college education. I think it’s a perfect combination there.”
League 42 has already seen its first success story in Dorian Lane, who was a part of the nonprofit’s inaugural season.
“I’m probably inspiring other kids to do the same thing as me, as long as they keep their head up and work hard, they can do it too,” said Lane.
Lane is currently on scholarship as a pitcher at Central Christian College in McPherson.
“It’s a great feather in our cap for a kid from our league to go on to play junior college baseball, and it’s just a matter of time before more do that,” said Lutz.
“Dorian is the first, but I am very sure he will not be the last,” said Rich Allen Lane, Dorian’s father.
Lane’s parents were drawn to the league for numerous reasons.
“I was very interested in League 42 because it was very economical, and it gave him the chance to play with other kids that looked like him,” said Samara Richardson, Lane’s mother. “On other teams that he played on, he’d be the only Black kid on the team, and that wasn’t a problem, but I think that he didn’t make as many friendships.”
Now, League 42 is looking forward to getting back on the diamond after its 2020 season was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re putting every possible resource we have into getting back on the field in 2021,” said Lutz. “We’re going to do so safely. We’re going to do so in partnership with officials. We’re not going to take an unneeded risk with the health of our families, but we need to get back on the field and play some baseball.”
To learn more about League 42, click here.