MORGAN PARK — The Jackie Robinson West sluggers from Chicago’s struggling South Side became national celebrities this summer when they hit and pitched their way to the Little League World Series and took home the U.S title.
But now the adults who put together the team — parents, coaches and league administrators — face allegations they violated Little League residency rules by stacking the lineup with All-Star ringers from the suburbs to create a “super team” that became champs.
In an email to Little League International obtained by DNAinfo.com Chicago, a neighboring south suburban league called on Little League officials to investigate whether Jackie Robinson West engaged in “manipulating, bending and blatantly breaking the rules for the sole purpose of winning at all costs.”
“We have very good reason to believe that [there] were several members of this team that did not live within JRW's boundaries and, per Little League residency requirements, should not have been allowed on this team,” Evergreen Park Athletic Association vice president Chris Janes wrote.
Evergreen Park league officials say they decided to speak out despite the risk of being criticized in hopes of protecting the integrity of Little League baseball — a once small-town organization that’s now worth more than $80 million — and keep their league, as well as others, alive.
Jackie Robinson West league officials say they fully complied with residency rules — and Little League International’s request for additional supporting documentation last month — pointing to a finding of no wrongdoing.
“Oh my goodness, we did not cheat. We did not recruit these guys,” Jackie Robinson West president Bill Haley said. “Nothing was done to put these kids together. We absolutely did not cheat.”
Little League residency rules require players to either reside or attend school within a league’s boundaries with very few exceptions, and specifically state it is unacceptable for a parent to establish residency to qualify for tournament play.
According to a league map obtained by DNAinfo.com, the Jackie Robinson West boundaries include sections of the Morgan Park, Washington Heights, Auburn Gresham, Englewood and New City neighborhoods of Chicago — but do not include any suburbs.
Janes and fellow Evergreen Park league board members said news reports during and after the World Series that quoted suburban officials celebrating various players as hometown heroes exposed some of Jackie Robinson West players as suburbanites and confirmed what some Evergreen Park Little League volunteers had suspected for years — preteen blue-chip players were being recruited to join the team.
“Due to their success this year — and getting on TV — all of the information [about the players] became so readily available,” Janes said. “All you had to do was Google any one of the players' names and their hometowns outside of Chicago pop up. … It was all just there.”
Jackie Robinson West coach Darold Butler said those news reports didn’t prove his lineup consisted of any ineligible players.
“Nothing was done that should not have been done,” he said. “The thing is until anyone really sits down and reads Little League’s rules … it doesn’t make sense to entertain questions. It sounds like they don’t have a clue. It sounds like there’s a little hate going on and that comes with the territory.”
Little League International officials have sided with Jackie Robinson West, but told DNAinfo.com the door remains open to further probing player eligibility if additional evidence is presented. The burden of proving a league violated rules rests with the accuser, officials said.
According to Janes, a senior Little League official who responded to the Evergreen Park league’s formal complaint by phone told Janes that Jackie Robinson West submitted the appropriate documentation required to prove player residency.
But Little League “never addressed any of our specific questions,” saying only that the paperwork turned in by Jackie Robinson West “met their standards and they were satisfied,” Janes said.
“It seems like a vague response to very specific questions which is why we continue to pursue answers.”
“Best Little League Team I’ve Ever Seen”
While Janes has questions over the players’ residency, he said there’s no doubt about one thing — those kids sure could play.
Before Jackie Robinson West burst onto the national scene, they dominated the local competition.
In the sectional playoffs, they outscored opponents 55-6, including an opening game slaughter-rule win over Evergreen Park Little League by a score of 43-2 in four innings.
Outfielder Trey Hondras hit two home runs in the first inning of that game and four total. Star pitcher Joshua Houston hit three homers. And two other players hit two home runs each.
“That was one for the record books,” Janes said. “The loss was so lopsided it was almost comical.”
Janes said the lopsided loss in the sectional playoffs had nothing to do with the Evergreen Park League’s decision to file the formal complaint against Jackie Robinson West.
Jackie Robinson West coach Butler disagreed.
“Maybe they’ve seen us on TV too much and maybe they’re sick of us. It’s part of what happens when good things are happening," Butler said. "I’m not mad at it whatsoever. It is what it is.”
After easily winning the sectional tournament, Butler’s team continued to roll through the state tournament, besting their rivals 53-3. In the title game, they crushed the Tri-Cities All-Stars 29-2.
“I gotta say they sure were a fun team to watch,” Janes said.
And even more than their skill on the ball diamond, Janes said the Jackie Robinson West players, just 11 and 12 years old, impressed him off the field by acting with maturity beyond their years.
“Every time I saw that team play, whether it was on TV or in person, those kids were fantastic — high degree of sportsmanship, well-behaved and obviously well-coached. I don’t have a single bad thing to say about any one of those kids,” Janes said.
“They’re an extremely talented group, best Little League team I’ve ever seen. They just shouldn’t have been able to play together.”
All it took was a simple Internet search to find that a congresswoman, a suburban mayor, an elite traveling baseball league and Sports Illustrated posted details about the players' suburban roots.
Even before the team won the title, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly took to Twitter to cheer on Jackie Robinson West players who live and attend school in suburban towns within her district.
The congresswoman boasted on Twitter that two members of the team were students at McKinley Junior High School in South Holland and another was from Dolton.
South Holland village officials congratulated the two as “alumni” in the village newsletter that’s mailed to residents and available online.
Sports Illustrated reported in its popular feature “Faces in the Crowd” that one player attended a school in suburban Homewood.
On the village of Lansing’s official Facebook page, the south suburb laid claim to one player as a student at the local Memorial Junior High.
Lynwood Mayor Mayor Gene Williams told the Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper of plans to celebrate “our own” Jackie Robinson West player — who the mayor is quoted as saying lives with his parents in the south suburban village — so Chicago’s mayor couldn’t take all the credit for honoring the champs.
"We're not going to let Rahm Emanuel steal everything," Williams told the newspaper.
A lighted sign outside the village hall announced plans to celebrate “Lynwoods” player and sold tickets to a Chicago White Sox game celebrating the Jackie Robinson West team’s big win.
Janes said he also was surprised to see news reports indicating that players even lived on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
The Austin Weekly News proclaimed one player as the “Pride of the West Side.”
The Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church hailed another player as a “life-long West Sider” when he presented the boy with the proceeds of a special offering. And Burr Elementary in Bucktown proudly counted a player among their students on the school website.
The Little League rules concerning residency are specific:
* “Players will be eligible to play … only if they reside or the physical location of the school where they attend classes is within the boundaries provided to and approved by Little League baseball.”
* " 'Residence’ … refers to a place of bona fide continuous habitation.”
* “It is unacceptable if a parent moves into a league’s boundaries for the purpose of qualifying for tournament play.”
* “Residence shall be established and supported by documents” including driver’s licenses, voter’s registration and school records, among others.
* Players can obtain a waiver if parents provide documented proof they previously lived in the league boundaries.
Getting caught breaking those rules can result in disqualification of a player, team or entire league from regular season and/or tournament play.
If a player’s residency is challenged, parents must provide those documents, an affidavit of residency or school attendance and any other “additional documentation” requested by Little League Baseball, according the rules.
“Not At Liberty To Say”
Patrick Wilson, Vice President of Operations and International Tournament Director for the Williamsport, Penn.-based Little League International, said he took seriously the allegations in Janes’ letter challenging residency of Jackie Robinson West players.
Wilson said Little League officials reviewed evidence Janes sent, which included Web links to news stories, Facebook pages, crowd-funding websites and roster information from the Chicago White Sox ACE program, a travel team organization that a number of Jackie Robinson West players had participated in.
Wilson said Little League checked Jackie Robinson West paperwork to verify that the players “live in Chicago or go to school in Chicago” and asked for additional information to verify residency. Little League officials, however, did not ask Jackie Robinson West parents to sign affidavits — legal binding documents signed under oath — to verify residency or school attendance as required according to Little League’s rules, Wilson said.
Wilson declined to answer specific questions about player residency information, would not say whether the league filed residency waivers for specific players and refused to provide the map of Jackie Robinson West’s league boundaries the national organization used to verify residency.
Wilson said that Little League International followed up on the “very specific complaints” made by Evergreen Park by rechecking the documents Jackie Robinson West submitted to prove player residency. He said Little League International also asked for additional documentation to support residency and school enrollment claims.
Wilson declined to elaborate on details of the investigation but said, “We checked the documentation and the addresses that the Evergreen Park folks sent from Lynwood, South Holland and Dolton.” He said that the organization looked at documents provided by Jackie Robinson “to support the residency and school enrollment requirements.”
Wilson said privacy concerns prevented him from disclosing information about specific player documentation and that it is Little League policy not to disclose individual league boundary maps.
“We don’t publish those maps,” Wilson said. “Leagues share them how they decide to. We do not.”
Janes said he was disappointed that Little League International conducted what he considered a less-than-thorough investigation especially given the organization’s significant financial resources. Last year, Little League signed a $60 million deal extending ESPN’s exclusive television broadcast rights to the World Series tournament.
“We thought what we sent them was the smoking gun. … It seems to me with all the big money people involved, the television rights and all of that, if they were legitimately concerned that they would have done their homework,” Janes said.
“If they were concerned about everybody playing by the same rules that Little League publishes on its website, their responses would have been a lot more specific. I think there’s a lot at stake and there are a lot of people involved in this that are concerned the truth may come out.”
Jackie Robinson West’s Butler and Haley also refused to provide DNAinfo.com with their league map, which is not published on the Jackie Robinson West website.
District 4 administrator, Michael Kelley, who is the gatekeeper charged with certifying Jackie Robinson West’s tournament eligibility documents, including the league boundary map, declined to be interviewed.
Haley said that the league has complied with Little League International’s requests.
During the team’s trip to visit President Obama at the White House in November, he asked some parents to provide additional residency verification documents requested by Little League. And that should be enough, he said.
“The map that we have shows all kids in the boundaries. I don’t think we should have to defend ourselves against Evergreen,” Haley said. “And we’ve proven all this to the people in Williamsport. We don’t have to prove ourselves to another league.”
‘I’ve got nothing to hide’
Carlton Hondras of South Holland, whose son Trey previously played in that town’s Little League program and joined Jackie Robinson West this year, said there are several reasons residency is a complicated issue: Some kids come from broken homes, some families have multiple properties and, frankly, the Jackie Robinson West league’s winning tradition is a draw for African-American families.
“If any black kid wants to play baseball they use Jackie Robinson West because it has been around and it’s not going anywhere. It’s like a tradition if you are from the city, whether you move out or not,” he said.
Hondras said “we went over there because of the way the league was structured.”
“The biggest issue with South Holland [Little League] was they never saw the bigger picture of getting kids to develop to make a push for a district title to go Downstate. It was too many guys playing daddy ball, dragging coaches' kids [on the All-Star team] who are not good enough,” he said.
Hondras said it’s no secret his son now attends James Hart Elementary School in suburban Homewood.
“I’ve got nothing to hide. My stuff is legit. My son has got three different homes,” Hondras said. “He goes to James Hart in Homewood. It was in Sports Illustrated.”
Hondras said he registered his son to play for Jackie Robinson West using the address of a house within the league boundaries that he owns with his wife, who is his son’s stepmother.
And when Little League International asked for more documentation in November, he provided a copy of his marriage license.
“I’ll speak the truth. It’s no different than when Michael Jordan’s son was playing at Whitney Young and people were complaining. What did he go do? He went and bought a condo Downtown so his son could play for Whitney Young,” he said. “You’re paying for the gas and the lights and the mortgage. … Now whether or not someone is sleeping there we don’t know. But at the end of the day you have the documentation.”
Several other Jackie Robinson West parents facing questions about whether their boys were eligible to play for the league told DNAinfo.com Chicago that they did not violate Little League rules.
Tammy King, whose child Eddie King Jr. was hailed as a proud son of south suburban Lynwood by the village’s mayor, said her family lives within the Jackie Robinson West boundaries.
“We used to live there years ago, but do not live in Lynwood anymore,” she said. “I’m in the city of Chicago but do not have to disclose where I live.”
Jackie Robinson president Haley said King provided documentation showing her son lived in the league boundary.
In June 2013, Tammy King changed her address on her driver’s license to a house owned by her parents near 88th and Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago, public records show.
However, that address is not in the Jackie Robinson West boundary, according to a district map a source provided to DNAinfo.com.
She and her husband, Eddie L. King, are registered as active voters in Lynwood and cast ballots there in the Nov. 4 election, public records show.
The home address of Christopher Green and Dr. Venisa Beasley-Green, whose son Brandon was on the team, is outside the Jackie Robinson West boundary, according to the map obtained by DNAinfo.com.
“We don’t know about boundaries,” Beasley-Green said. “We know it’s a city of Chicago requirement … no specific coordinates to play on a particular team.”
Another player’s parents, Ed and Calandra Howard, both live in suburban Lansing, according to public records. Their son, Ed Howard, is listed as living in Lansing on the 2014 roster for the Chicago White Sox ACE team he played on this year. He is currently a seventh-grader at a Lansing junior high school. His parents did not respond to messages seeking comment.
One player’s Facebook page and the White Sox ACE roster both list the boy’s hometown as Dolton. The player, Joshua Houston, attends a Chicago charter school near 115th and Prairie Avenue, according to published reports. That school is located outside of the Jackie Robinson West boundary according to the map obtained by DNAinfo.com.
In 2011, the player’s mother, Myrtle Houston, changed the address on her driver’s license to a house owned by Theresa Johnson in the Jackie Robinson district. However, she remains a registered voter at the same address where husband, Jerry, lives in Dolton and cast a ballot in that precinct in the Nov. 4 election.
The player’s father declined to answer questions about where his son lives or goes to school.
Coach Butler, whose son DJ also played on his team, confirmed that both his driver’s license and voting registration are listed to an address in suburban Calumet Park.
Still, he says, “I live in Chicago.”
“You can have multiple addresses and I have a wife, so…” Butler said.
Butler’s wife’s driver’s license is registered to an address in Morgan Park within Jackie Robinson West boundaries. That same address is listed as the headquarters for the West Englewood Tigers traveling baseball team that Butler also coaches.
A Travel Team ‘Masquerade’?
Many of the Jackie Robinson West parents who are facing questions about their residency have one thing in common — their boys also play travel ball for elite teams.
Five of the Jackie Robinson West players facing questions about their residency were on the 2014 Chicago White Sox ACE 12-year-old All-Star travel team. Only one of those ACE players had Chicago listed as his hometown on that roster.
This year, Eddie King Jr. played for the Lou Collier Stars, a team that Joshua Houston and Brandon Green played on in 2012 and 2013, managed by Green’s father.
Jackie Robinson West’s coach, Butler, also managed the 2013 West Englewood Tigers 12-year-old travel team that included his son and four other members of this year's Little League U.S. championship team.
The appearance that the Jackie Robinson West team is comprised of “travel players from outside their boundaries” remains at the heart of Evergreen Park’s formal complaint, Janes said.
When parents ask him how his suburban league can remain competitive against Jackie Robinson West, Janes says he doesn’t have a good answer.
"As long as they are allowed to select players from outside their boundaries to make a team largely comprised of travel players and we continue to only allow players within our boundary, it’s going to be difficult,” Janes alleged.
Janes said he “wouldn’t be surprised that other leagues do the same thing particularly if circumventing the rules is as easy as it appears to be now.”
“But I think it’s wrong no matter who does it,” Janes said. “In the end Jackie Robinson West is in our backyard and they’ve been so well-publicized that it’s obvious that they’re doing it, at least in my eyes.”
Janes said Evergreen Park volunteers genuinely fear that the continued existence of an unlevel playing field might kill their league.
“The intent of Little League is everybody plays. There are no cuts. It’s a childhood experience, not a stepping stone to play high school ball or college,” Janes said.
Travel ball exists for the players whose parents “thought their kids were a little better and it might be good to play a more competitive brand of baseball on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Travel teams are not restricted by boundaries. “They have tryouts and cut players,” Janes said. “They don’t have the same rules as Little League.”
The travel teams, he said, “really don’t want anything to do with Little League — until it’s time to play on TV.”
“All the sudden they’re a travel ball team masquerading as a Little League team,” he said.
Little League vice president Wilson understands concerns with travel squads but said there’s nothing Little League can do to prevent boys from simultaneously playing on travel teams.
“We were taken to court and a judge told us it’s the parents’ decision and we can’t govern what kids do outside Little League programs,” he said.
Wilson said that he would review any additional information, including Jackie Robinson West boundary maps, sent to Little League International regarding player eligibility, but for now the case was closed.
In his letter to Little League International, Janes wrote, “In the event we do not receive a detailed response explaining how these players were eligible to play for JRW we are strongly considering obtaining outside representation to see this matter through to the end.”
Janes said the Evergreen Park league considered the negative reaction that their formal complaint might generate but forged ahead anyway with a slogan that for years appeared on team jerseys at the World Series that read, “I will not cheat.”
“We’re not putting the kids in the middle of this. I didn’t break the rules. I don’t think the kids knowingly or intentionally did. But the people responsible for those kids did and they need to be called out,” Janes said.
He added, “There’s something wrong with a process that seems to be very easily manipulated.”
“Shame on the coaches, parents and the district administrator who may have signed off on this process and signed off on it, because all they did was put the kids in the middle of it,” Janes said.
Several Jackie Robinson West parents, coaches and volunteers questioned about the allegations said they believed Evergreen Park’s allegations are born of jealousy and a desire to tarnish the accomplishment of a group of talented kids who made history.
“It’s amazing how they could try to take this achievement and tear it down to say someone cheated,” parent Tammy King said. “To me it’s a waste of time. It’s the boys’ talent that got them there. At this point, don’t take fame from the kids.”
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: