It was round midday final Thursday when Bob Lutz walked exterior of his work and headed house earlier than the beginning of his each day radio present. He seemed throughout seventeenth Road in Wichita, Kan., from the workplaces of League 42, the nonprofit baseball league he based in 2013. On a wet, overcast day, he gazed over towards the Jackie Robinson statue the league had erected in 2021. The statue was an emblem of hope and resilience. Lutz, although, couldn’t see the bronze depiction of the person who broke baseball’s shade barrier.
For a second, Lutz puzzled if it was coated by fog. He blinked. Appeared once more. Doubting himself, he referred to as an assistant out of the constructing to affix him. The lady seemed and likewise couldn’t see the statue.
Quickly they had been throughout the road, the place the odd hallucination of a lacking statue turned to actuality. Jackie Robinson was gone, lower simply above his shoetops.
“The feelings,” Lutz mentioned, “had been overwhelming.”
The story that adopted grew to become a nationwide headline. Surveillance video captured people getting into the Jackie Robinson Pavillion round midnight Thursday, eradicating the statue valued at $75,000 and putting it in a truck. Wichita police held a information convention and pleaded for its return.
“I’m annoyed by the actions of these people who had the audacity to take the statue of Jackie Robinson from a park the place youngsters and households in our group collect to study the historical past of Jackie Robinson, an American icon, and play the sport of baseball,” Wichita police Chief Joe Sullivan mentioned throughout a information convention Friday. “This could upset all of us.”
Lutz’s worst fears had been quickly realized. Tuesday morning, Wichita’s Fireplace Division responded to studies of a trash can hearth at Garvey Park. The hearth was extinguished. Left in its ashes were pieces of the Robinson statue.
Our statue was discovered, dismantled and burned, at Garvey Park in Wichita. A information convention will start shortly.
— Bob Lutz (@boblutz) January 30, 2024
Though it’s unclear whether or not the theft and destruction was racially motivated, the act struck deeply on the hearts of these invested in League 42 and the broader baseball group.
“I’ve been disenchanted because it was stolen,” Lutz mentioned. “It’s incomprehensible that individuals would do that. However when individuals do one thing that dastardly, it could actually’t be a shock once they’ve performed one thing equally dastardly. I wasn’t shocked. I’m simply unhappy about the entire thing. It’s too unhealthy that individuals would desecrate our statue, particularly a statue of Jackie Robinson.”
League 42 began in 2013 as Lutz’s brainchild. A longtime journalist and radio host and a lifelong lover of baseball, he was disheartened as he learn tales and noticed statistics concerning the dwindling numbers of younger Individuals enjoying baseball. Rising prices and the proliferation of journey ball tradition have made the sport much less accessible than ever.
“The thought was it bothered me that younger youngsters, particularly younger youngsters of shade, had been being shut out of enjoying baseball,” Lutz mentioned. “I feel each child ought to have that chance.”
With the assistance of native companions, Lutz labored to start out an inexpensive league that costs $30 per household. League 42 gives uniforms and gear. It caps its enrollment at 600 kids, a manner of specializing in high quality over amount.
The league received its namesake within the early days, when Lutz and others had been assembly over the topic. Just a few individuals threw out names. None of them caught. Lastly, somebody within the group pitched the concept of honoring Jackie Robinson. Virtually instantly, another person replied: “Why don’t we name it League 42?”
“It’s like a lightning bolt had struck,” Lutz mentioned. “It was the plain title for us.”
Because the league charted its path ahead and grew its enrollment, Lutz mentioned it tried to emulate Robinson’s legacy in a number of methods. The league gives instructional packages and has taught the significance of Robinson’s trailblazing spirit within the face of racism, threats of violence and lots of of humanity’s worst impulses.
In 2014, the league began with 16 groups and 200 kids. By 2020, it had grown to 44 groups. In 2015, League 42 secured a $1.5 million contribution from town to boost its services and add a 3rd enjoying discipline at McAdams Park.
Ultimately, the league sought to erect a statue of Robinson as an emblem of its values and its mission. League 42 consulted with title, picture and likeness attorneys and obtained permission from the Robinson household and the Jackie Robinson Basis. The Wichita group rallied to boost cash for the statue and gave the fee to native artist John Parsons. The Robinson statue was erected in 2021.
Lower than three years later, when that statue disappeared, the response was visceral.
“I really feel like I’ve misplaced an in depth pal or relative and my anger is raging,” Lutz wrote that day on Fb. “I actually don’t know what to do.”
Lutz, although, was shortly overwhelmed by an outpouring of help. Individuals from Wichita and much past reached out. Group members gathered on the Jackie Robinson Pavilion as a kind of vigil. They positioned roses and a crimson hat with the quantity 42 the place the statue as soon as stood. A heart-shaped notice on the flowers learn: We miss you. They discovered the mildew from the unique statue continues to be viable, and a GoFundMe account raised almost $50,000 for a brand new statue in two days.
We had a pleasant, if not heat, gathering on the web site of our stolen Jackie Robinson statue. Because of everybody who got here out. It was good to be collectively, and particularly to see an excellent variety of our youngsters and gamers. I like them. pic.twitter.com/3jHwUYfJJS
— Bob Lutz (@boblutz) January 27, 2024
Lutz additionally obtained phrases of encouragement from Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas Metropolis, Mo., who had visited League 42 in 2022 and brought an image with the Robinson statue. “We received your again,” Kendrick advised him.
“They’re doing tremendously helpful work in opening up alternatives for teenagers of all colours to play this sport, which is one thing that the museum has as a part of its mission,” Kendrick mentioned. “We’re right here to protect a valuable piece of baseball americana and its previous. We even have an necessary function in serving to develop our sport.”
The lack of the statue, Kendrick mentioned, can function an unlucky reminder of the hatred that also persists in society.
“With progress,” Kendrick mentioned, “comes that tendency to overlook.”
In 2021, locals in Cairo, Ga., found a historic marker commemorating the place of Robinson’s beginning had been peppered with hearth from a shotgun. Authorities noticed heightened harm across the phrases “Negro American” and “baseball’s shade barrier.” Major League Baseball responded with a $40,000 reward to the Georgia Historic Society, permitting for a brand new marker and an endowment fund in Robinson’s title.
In Wichita, whereas police proceed their seek for the perpetrators behind the theft, the group continues to rally behind the group. It has left Lutz emotionally overwhelmed another way.
Observing from afar, Kendrick notes the parallels between League 42 and the person it honors.
“You possibly can steal the statue, however you can’t steal the spirit of what Jackie represented,” Kendrick mentioned. “I feel what you’re seeing from the general public at massive is a Jackie Robinson-like resolve for good to beat evil. And so each time that you simply’re prepared to surrender on humanity — and we all know we will’t surrender on humanity — humanity steps as much as the plate and reminds us of what we already know: There are extra good individuals than unhealthy individuals. At all times has been, at all times shall be.”
For the reason that theft of the statue, Lutz has been offering fixed updates on his Fb web page. In a put up Tuesday, he vented concerning the unknowable motives behind those that stole and burned the statue. Why did they do it? Have they felt any regret? Do they know of Jackie Robinson and why he stays such a poignant image of hope?
“I hope to study extra concerning the perpetrators within the coming days,” Lutz wrote. “In the event that they had been introduced into my workplace on the Leslie Rudd Studying Heart, I might not be indignant. I might ask them the questions I’ve posed right here. And I hope I might hear.”
(High photograph: Courtesy of League 42)