It was around noon last Thursday when Bob Lutz walked outside of his 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 gazed over toward the Jackie Robinson statue the league had erected in 2021. The statue was a symbol of hope and resilience. Lutz, though, could not see the bronze depiction of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.
For a moment, Lutz wondered if it was covered by fog. He blinked. Looked again. Doubting himself, he called an assistant out of the building to join him. The woman looked and also could not see the statue.
Soon they were across the street, where the odd hallucination of a missing statue turned to reality. Jackie Robinson was gone, cut just above his shoetops.
“The emotions,” Lutz said, “were overwhelming.”
The story that followed became a national headline. Surveillance video captured individuals entering the Jackie Robinson Pavillion around midnight Thursday, removing the statue valued at $75,000 and placing it in a truck. Wichita police held a news conference and pleaded for its return.
“I’m frustrated by the actions of those individuals who had the audacity to take the statue of Jackie Robinson from a park where kids and families in our community gather to learn the history of Jackie Robinson, an American icon, and play the game of baseball,” Wichita police Chief Joe Sullivan said during a news conference Friday. “This should upset all of us.”
Lutz’s worst fears were soon realized. Tuesday morning, Wichita’s Fire Department responded to reports of a trash can fire at Garvey Park. The fire was extinguished. Left in its ashes were pieces of the Robinson statue.
Our statue was found, dismantled and burned, at Garvey Park in Wichita. A news conference will begin shortly.
— Bob Lutz (@boblutz) January 30, 2024
Although it is unclear whether the theft and destruction was 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 that dastardly, it can’t be a surprise when they’ve done something equally dastardly. I wasn’t shocked. I’m just sad about the whole thing. It’s too bad that people would desecrate our statue, especially a statue of Jackie Robinson.”
League 42 started in 2013 as Lutz’s brainchild. A longtime journalist and radio host and a lifelong lover of baseball, he was disheartened as he read stories and saw statistics about the dwindling numbers 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 it bothered me that young kids, especially young kids of color, were being shut out of playing baseball,” Lutz said. “I think every kid should have that opportunity.”
With the help of local partners, Lutz worked to start an affordable league that charges $30 per family. League 42 provides uniforms and equipment. It caps its enrollment at 600 children, a way of focusing on quality over quantity.
The league got its namesake in the early days, when Lutz and others were meeting over the subject. A few people threw out names. None of them stuck. Finally, someone in the group pitched the idea of honoring Jackie Robinson. Almost immediately, someone else replied: “Why don’t we call it League 42?”
“It’s like a lightning bolt had struck,” Lutz said. “It was the obvious name for us.”
As the league charted its path forward and grew its enrollment, 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 trailblazing 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. By 2020, it had grown to 44 teams. In 2015, League 42 secured a $1.5 million contribution from the city to enhance its facilities and add a third playing field at McAdams Park.
Eventually, the league sought to erect a statue of Robinson as a symbol of its values and its 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 money for the statue and gave the commission to 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, though, was quickly overwhelmed by an outpouring of support. People from Wichita and far beyond reached out. Community members gathered at the Jackie Robinson Pavilion as a sort of vigil. They placed roses and a red hat with the number 42 where the statue once stood. A heart-shaped note on the flowers read: We miss you. They found the mold from the original statue is still viable, and a GoFundMe account raised nearly $50,000 for a new statue in two days.
We had a nice, if not warm, gathering at the site of our stolen Jackie Robinson statue. Thanks to everyone who came out. It was good to be together, and especially to see a good number of our kids and 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, Mo., who had visited League 42 in 2022 and taken a picture with the Robinson statue. “We got your back,” Kendrick told him.
“They’re doing tremendously valuable work in opening up opportunities for kids of all colors to play this game, which is something that the museum has as part of its mission,” Kendrick said. “We’re here to preserve a precious piece of baseball americana and its past. We also have an important role in helping grow 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 that tendency to forget.”
In 2021, locals in Cairo, Ga., discovered a historical marker commemorating the place of Robinson’s birth had been peppered with fire from a shotgun. Authorities observed heightened damage around the words “Negro American” and “baseball’s color barrier.” Major League Baseball responded with a $40,000 gift to the Georgia Historical Society, allowing for a new marker and an endowment fund in Robinson’s name.
In Wichita, while police continue their search for the perpetrators behind the theft, the community continues to rally behind the group. It has 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 cannot steal the spirit of what Jackie represented,” Kendrick said. “I think what you’re seeing from the public at large is a Jackie Robinson-like resolve for good to overcome evil. And so every time that you’re ready to give up on humanity — and we know we can’t give up on humanity — humanity steps up to the plate and reminds us of what we already know: There are more good people than bad people. Always has been, always will be.”
Since the theft of the statue, Lutz has been providing constant updates on his Facebook page. In a post Tuesday, he vented about the unknowable motives behind those who stole and burned the statue. Why did they do it? Have they felt any remorse? Do they know of 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 would not be angry. I would ask them the questions I’ve posed here. And I hope I would listen.”
(Top photo: Courtesy of League 42)