After the Jackie Robinson statue is destroyed, Wichita reunites in a baseball league

It was about noon last Thursday when Bob Lutz left work and headed home before the start of his daily radio show. He looked across 17th Street in Wichita, Kan., from the offices of League 42, the nonprofit baseball league he founded in 2013. On a rainy, overcast day, he looked toward the statue of Jackie Robinson that the league had erected in 2021. The statue was a symbol of hope and resilience. Lutz, however, failed to see the bronze depiction of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

For a moment Lutz wondered if he was covered in fog. I blinked. He looked again. Doubting himself, he called an assistant out of the building to join him. The woman looked and she too could not see the statue.

Soon they found themselves across the street, where the strange hallucination of a missing statue turned into reality. Jackie Robinson was gone, cut off just above the toes of his shoes.

“The emotions,” Lutz said, “were overwhelming.”

The story that followed became a national headline. Surveillance video captured people entering the Jackie Robinson Pavilion around midnight Thursday, removing the $75,000 statue and placing it on a truck. Wichita police held a press conference and called for his return.

“I am frustrated by the actions of those people who had the audacity to take the Jackie Robinson statue from a park where children and families in our community gather to learn the story of Jackie Robinson, an American icon, and play at the baseball game,” Wichita Police Chief Joe Sullivan said during a news conference Friday. “This should shock all of us.”

Lutz’s worst fears were soon realized. Tuesday morning, the Wichita Fire Department responded to a report of a trash can fire in Garvey Park. The fire has been put out. Among his ashes were pieces of Robinson’s statue.

While it is unclear whether the theft and destruction were racially motivated, the act struck deeply at the hearts of those invested in League 42 and the broader baseball community.

“I’ve been disappointed since it was stolen,” Lutz said. “It’s incomprehensible that people would do this. But when people do something so vile, it can’t be a surprise if they’ve done something equally vile. I wasn’t shocked. I’m just sad about the whole thing. “It’s a shame that people would desecrate our statue, especially a statue of Jackie Robinson.”

League 42 started in 2013 as Lutz’s idea. A longtime journalist and radio host and lifelong lover of baseball, he was disheartened when reading stories and seeing statistics about the dwindling number of young Americans playing baseball. Rising costs and the proliferation of travel ball culture have made the game less accessible than ever.

“The idea was that it bothered me that kids, especially kids of color, were being excluded from playing baseball,” Lutz said. “I think every child should have this opportunity.”

With the help of local partners, Lutz has worked to start an affordable league that costs $30 per family. League 42 provides uniforms and equipment. It limits enrollment to 600 kids, a way to focus on quality over quantity.

The league got its name in the early days, when Lutz and others met on the subject. Some people threw out names. None of them stuck. Eventually, someone in the group floated the idea of ​​honoring Jackie Robinson. Almost immediately someone else responded: “Why don’t we call it League 42?”

“It’s like lightning struck,” Lutz said. “It was the most obvious name to us.”

As the league charted its path and grew its membership, Lutz said it tried to emulate Robinson’s legacy in several ways. The league provides educational programs and has taught the importance of Robinson’s pioneering spirit in the face of racism, threats of violence and many of humanity’s worst impulses.

In 2014, the league started with 16 teams and 200 kids. By 2020 it had grown to 44 teams. In 2015, League 42 secured a $1.5 million contribution from the city to improve its facilities and add a third playing field at McAdams Park.

Ultimately, the league sought to erect a statue of Robinson as a symbol of its values ​​and mission. League 42 consulted with name, image and likeness attorneys and obtained permission from the Robinson family and the Jackie Robinson Foundation. The Wichita community rallied to raise funds for the statue and entrusted the commission to local artist John Parsons. Robinson’s statue was erected in 2021.

The statue’s unveiling is scheduled for 2021. (Courtesy of League 42)

Less than three years later, when that statue disappeared, the reaction was visceral.

“I feel like I have lost a dear friend or relative and my anger rages,” Lutz wrote on Facebook that day. “I honestly don’t know what to do.”

Lutz, however, was immediately overwhelmed by a wave of support. People from Wichita and beyond have contacted us. Community members gathered at the Jackie Robinson Pavilion as a vigil of sorts. Where once stood the miserable statue of roses and a red hat with the number 42. A heart-shaped note on the flowers read: We miss you. They found that the mold of the original statue is still viable, and a GoFundMe account raised nearly $50,000 for a new statue in two days.

Lutz also received words of encouragement from Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, who had visited League 42 in 2022 and took a photo with the Robinson statue. “We’ve got your back,” Kendrick told him.

“They are doing an extremely valuable job of providing opportunities for children of all colors to play this game, which is something that the museum has as part of its mission,” Kendrick said. “We are here to preserve a precious piece of American baseball and its past. “We also have an important role in helping grow our game.”

The loss of the statue, Kendrick said, may serve as an unfortunate reminder of the hatred that still persists in society.

“With progress,” Kendrick said, “comes the tendency to forget.”

In 2021, locals in Cairo, Georgia discovered that a historical monument commemorating Robinson’s birthplace had been hit by rifle fire. Authorities have observed an increase in damage around the words “American Negro” and “baseball color barrier.” Major League Baseball responded with a $40,000 donation to the Georgia Historical Society, enabling a new marker and endowment fund in Robinson’s name.

In Wichita, while the police continue to search for the perpetrators of the theft, the community continues to rally behind the group. It left Lutz emotionally overwhelmed in a different way.

Watching from afar, Kendrick notices the parallels between League 42 and the man it honors.

“You can steal the statue, but you can’t steal the spirit of what Jackie stood for,” Kendrick said. “I think what you see in the general public is a Jackie Robinson-like determination, doing good to overcome bad. And so every time you’re ready to give up on humanity – and we know we can’t give up – humanity steps up and reminds us of what we already know: There are more good people than bad people. . “Always has been, always will be.”

Since the statue’s theft, Lutz has provided constant updates on his Facebook page. In a post on Tuesday I talked about the unknown motives behind those who stole and burned the statue. Why did they do it? Did they feel remorse? Do they know about Jackie Robinson and why he remains such a poignant symbol of hope?

“I hope to learn more about the perpetrators in the coming days,” Lutz wrote. “If they were brought into my office at the Leslie Rudd Learning Center, I wouldn’t be upset. I would like to ask them the questions I asked here. And I hope I will listen.

(Top photo: courtesy of League 42)