It was around noon last Thursday when Bob Lutz got off work and returned home before the start of his daily radio show. He looked across 17th Street in Wichita, Kansas, from the offices of League 42, the nonprofit baseball league he founded in 2013. On a rainy, overcast day, he looked toward the Jackie Robinson statue that the league had erected in 2021. the statue was a symbol of hope and resilience. Lutz, however, couldn’t see the bronze depiction of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.
Lutz wondered for a moment if it was covered in fog. He blinked. I looked again. Doubting himself, he called an aide out of the building to join him. The woman looked and couldn’t see the statue either.
Soon they arrived on the other side of the street, where the strange hallucination of a missing statue came true. Jackie Robinson was missing, cut just above his shoes.
“The emotions,” Lutz said, “were overwhelming.”
The story that followed made national headlines. Surveillance video captured individuals entering the Jackie Robinson Pavilion around midnight Thursday, removing the $75,000 statue and placing it in a truck. Wichita police held a news conference and pleaded for his return.
“I am frustrated by the actions of these individuals who had the audacity to remove 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 the game of baseball,” Wichita Police Chief Joe Sullivan said at a news conference Friday. “This should upset us all.”
Lutz’s worst fears were quickly realized. Wichita firefighters responded to reports of a trash fire in Garvey Park on Tuesday morning. The fire has been extinguished. In his ashes were pieces of Robinson’s statue.
Our statue was found, taken down and burned in Garvey Park in Wichita. A press conference will begin shortly.
– Bob Lutz (@boblutz) January 30, 2024
Although it is unclear whether the theft and destruction was racially motivated, the act touched deeply the hearts of those invested in the 42 League and the broader baseball community.
“I’ve been disappointed since it was stolen,” Lutz said. “It is incomprehensible that people would do this. But when people do something so despicable, it can’t be a surprise that they did something so despicable. I wasn’t shocked. I’m just sad about all this. It’s a shame that people desecrate our statue, especially that of Jackie Robinson. »
League 42 began in 2013 thanks to Lutz’s original idea. A longtime journalist and radio host and lifelong baseball lover, he became disheartened when reading articles and seeing statistics about the declining 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 young kids, especially young kids of color, were being kept from playing baseball,” Lutz said. “I think every child should have this opportunity.”
With the help of local partners, Lutz worked to create an affordable league that charges $30 per family. League 42 provides uniforms and equipment. It caps its registrations at 600 children, a way of favoring quality rather than quantity.
The league received its namesake early, when Lutz and others were meeting on the subject. A few people threw out names. None of them got 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 obvious name for us.”
As the league charted its course and grew its roster, Lutz said it tried to emulate Robinson’s legacy in several ways. The league offers 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 children. In 2020, it had 44 teams. In 2015, League 42 received 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 commissioned local artist John Parsons. The Robinson statue was erected in 2021.
Less than three years later, when that statue disappeared, the reaction was visceral.
“I feel like I have lost a close friend or relative and my anger is raging,” Lutz wrote that day on Facebook. “I honestly don’t know what to do.”
Lutz, however, was quickly overwhelmed by an outpouring of support. People from Wichita and beyond have contacted us. Community members gathered at the Jackie Robinson Pavilion for a vigil of sorts. They placed roses and a red hat with the number 42 on the spot where the statue once stood. A heart-shaped note on the flowers read: We miss you. They discovered the mold of the original statue was still viable, and a GoFundMe account raised nearly $50,000 for a new statue in two days.
We had a pleasant, if not warm, meeting at the site of our stolen Jackie Robinson statue. Thanks to everyone who came. It was good to be together, and especially to see a lot of our kids and our players. I love them. pic.twitter.com/3jHwUYfJJS
– Bob Lutz (@boblutz) January 27, 2024
Lutz also received words of encouragement from Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, who visited League 42 in 2022 and took a photo with the Robinson statue. “We support you,” Kendrick told him.
“They are doing extremely valuable work opening up opportunities for children of all colors to play this game, which is part of the museum’s mission,” Kendrick said. “We are here to preserve a precious piece of American baseball and its past. We also have an important role to play in the development of our game.”
The loss of the statue, Kendrick said, can serve as an unfortunate reminder of the hatred that still persists in society.
“With progress,” Kendrick said, “comes this tendency to forget.”
In 2021, residents of Cairo, Georgia discovered that a historic monument commemorating Robinson’s birthplace had been peppered with shotgun blasts. Authorities observed increased damage around the words “Negro American” and “baseball color barrier.” Major League Baseball responded with a $40,000 donation to the Georgia Historical Society, allowing for the creation of a new scorer and endowment in Robinson’s name.
In Wichita, as police continue their search for the perpetrators of the theft, the community continues to rally behind the group. This left Lutz emotionally overwhelmed in a different way.
Observing from afar, Kendrick notes 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 represented,” Kendrick said. “I think what you see from the general public is a Jackie Robinson-like determination for good and to defeat evil. So every time you’re ready to give up on humanity – and we know we can’t give up on humanity – humanity takes over and reminds us what we already know: there are more good people than bad people. . Always was, always will be.”
Since the statue’s theft, Lutz has been providing constant updates on his Facebook page. In an article published Tuesday, he spoke about the unknowable motivations of those who stole and burned the statue. Why did they do it? Did they feel remorse? Do they know Jackie Robinson and why he remains such a poignant symbol of hope?
“I hope to learn more about the authors in the coming days,” Lutz wrote. “If they were brought into my office at the Leslie Rudd Learning Center, I wouldn’t be angry. I would ask them the questions I asked here. And I hope I would listen.
(Top photo: Courtesy of Ligue 42)