A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist follows an embattled Little League team in inner-city Newark, New Jersey, revealing the complex realities of urban life in one of America's most dangerous cities
When Rodney Mason, an ex-con drug dealer from Newark's rough South Ward, was shot and paralyzed, he vowed to turn his life around. A former high-school pitching ace with a 93 mph fastball, Mason decided to form a Little League team to help boys avoid the street life that had claimed his youth and mobility. Predictably, the players struggle—they endure poverty, unstable family lives with few positive male role models, failing schools, and dangerous neighborhoods—but through the fists and tears, lopsided losses and rare victories, this bunch of misfits becomes a team, and in doing so gives the community something to root for. With in-depth reporting, fascinating characters, and vivid prose, Jonathan Schuppe's A Chance to Win is both a penetrating, true-to-life portrait of what's at stake for kids growing up poor in America's inner cities and a portrait of Newark itself, a struggling city that has recently known great hope as well as failure.
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About the Author
Jonathan Schuppe is an award-winning journalist who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey’s resignation as well as the coveted J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Prize for A Chance to Win. He is also on the board of directors of Criminal Justice Journalists. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
A Chance To Win
Boyhood, Baseball, and the Struggle for Redemption in the Inner City
By Jonathan Schuppe
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2013 Jonathan Schuppe
All rights reserved.
If you drive south from New York City on the New Jersey Turnpike, Newark appears rather suddenly, about five miles out, as the highway curls across the Hackensack River, climbs a hundred feet above the Meadowlands, and cuts through a formation of volcanic rock called Snake Hill. Atop the cragged peak, the road bends westward, and you find yourself looking out over a vast mottled carpet of factories, warehouses, landfills, highways, and railroad lines. Plumes of steam dissolve into the air over oily mudflats and windblown beds of wheat-colored reeds. Up ahead, the three-mile-long black-steel skeleton of the Pulaski Skyway stretches over the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, and to the right, at the southwestern horizon, along an S-shaped curve in the Passaic, stands the downtown skyline, a striking combination of art deco, Beaux-Arts, and modernist skyscrapers built in the city's golden age, when Newark was the most industrialized city in America, producing just about anything Americans used, from curling irons and soap to sheet metal and celluloid. Catch the view late in the afternoon, with the sun hanging low over the Watchung Mountains and reflecting off the sandstone and glass, and you understand what it must have been like for twentieth-century travelers arriving in Newark for the first time, immigrants fresh from Eastern Europe and Latin America, and African-Americans from the Jim Crow South, stopping short of New York to stake themselves in a rough-and-tumble city with still so much to prove.
On the road toward Newark you pass piles of automobile carcasses, oil tanks, fields of empty Lego-like shipping containers stacked seven stories high, trucking bay after trucking bay. Soon the turnpike carries you under the rumble of airplanes descending into Newark Airport. A half-dozen apartment towers, each more than twenty stories tall, rise above a tangle of jug handles and overpasses. The towers stand on Elizabeth Avenue, a major municipal artery that begins at the edge of downtown, runs into the South Ward, and keels westward along the slope of Weequahic Park and traces the southern boundary of the neighborhood that shares the park's name. The brick-and-steel towers are clustered around that sharp turn at the park's corner, at the periphery of an industrial zone littered with scrap-metal yards, recycling plants, auto-glass works, and methadone clinics.
The towers were the result of an ambitious and ill-timed development blitz aimed at preventing Weequahic's middle- and upper-income residents from fleeing to the suburbs in the 1960s. Billed as luxury high-rises, the buildings were supposed to bring modern living to a city desperate for revitalization. They boasted saunas, pools, recreation rooms, maid and porter services, marble lobbies, and easy bus access to downtown Newark and Manhattan. The key feature was an unencumbered vista of the 311-acre park, which featured a lake and golf course and was designed by the same landscape architectural firm that created Central Park.
It didn't work. The upwardly mobile Jewish families who had migrated to the neighborhood decades earlier continued to retreat westward, a trend that hastened after several days of rioting in July 1967. They were replaced by striving working-class blacks from Central Ward slums, some of whom could afford the rent in the new towers or in the squat 1930s-era art deco buildings between them. But there weren't enough middle-income tenants to keep the buildings filled, and the developers were forced to rethink their business plans. That included the backers of Zion Towers, a twenty-eight-story building conceived as a residence for elderly Jews. When the project was finally finished in the early 1970s, the sponsoring temple, B'nai Zion, and its partners applied for government subsidies and opened the apartments to a wider array of residents.
At the time, Clara Mason was a single mother of five children, facing eviction from a house down the street that had just been sold. A scrawny woman with angular features, a jutting lower lip, and light brown skin, Clara grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and quit school at seventeen to marry a navy-yard worker thirteen years her elder. Many members of her family disapproved of the marriage, including an uncle who'd moved to Newark seeking work. He sent for Clara, offering her the chance to finish school and start over. She agreed, but her husband, James, followed her, finding work as a truck driver. She moved in with him and ditched her plans. They began having children, but James was a carouser and an abusive alcoholic. They separated, but he would still stop by from time to time. "It was like he would come around long enough to get a baby," Clara told me, a scratch of bitterness in her drawl. "You know. One of them things." James never stuck around long enough to play much of a role in his children's lives, and he died in the early 1970s. Clara found work in an airplane-parts factory, then in a doctor's office, supporting her three daughters and two sons on her own.
Desperate for a new place to live, Clara went to her pastor, who worked as a chaplain at a local hospital alongside a rabbi from B'nai Zion. Despite Zion Towers' struggles, the building still boasted luxury amenities: mail chutes on each floor, juice and milk machines in the lobby, a recreation center, a playground. When Clara was accepted for a three-bedroom apartment on the tenth floor, at $167 a month, "I thought I was living in paradise," she said. "I thought I was rich."
The Masons were among the first black families to live in Zion Towers, and they weren't exactly welcomed. Soon after they moved in, Clara stepped into an elevator and started riding it down with an older white woman who sneered, "I'm going back up and calling Rabbi Klein, because he told me when I moved in there wasn't going to be any blacks coming in here."
"You got something against blacks?" Clara asked.
"Yes," the woman said. "They have too many babies."
The rabbi often stopped by to inspect Clara's apartment — more often than he did her neighbors'. After looking around, he'd say, "Miss Mason, I am so proud. You have all these kids and your apartment is spotless." She thanked him, but she wanted to say, What do you think, that all black people are dirty? After that, Clara was afraid to let her kids play in the hallways for fear that she would get kicked out. But years later, she would recall the inspections fondly; they reminded her of a time when people cared enough to keep the neighborhood clean.
Clara made a decent living, but she developed excruciating ulcers that doctors blamed on stress. An ill- advised surgery removed parts of her stomach, but she remained in chronic pain and was unable to eat much. She was forced to quit her job and go on disability, but her government checks barely covered rent and groceries. Clara's three oldest children moved out of the house, leaving only Rodney and Darlene.
Rodney, the baby, was a quiet, pensive boy. He kept to himself and did not give his mother much grief. If he did something wrong, all she had to do was flash him a stern look and he would burst into tears. He grew up tall, slender, and bowlegged, prone to long bouts of silence and a habit of biting his nails. He was obsessively hygienic; he refused to wear anything stained and took long showers that often made his sister late for school.
When Rodney was six, Clara showed him a photograph and pointed to a man she said was his father. He was thin, light skinned, with a mustache, and was laughing. Rodney wanted to ask Clara why that man was so happy, but before he got a chance, she took the photograph back and put it away. Rodney never saw it again, and his father remained a fuzzy snapshot of a memory. He was rarely spoken of at home; Clara only acknowledged her husband when someone else brought him up, and then she quickly changed the subject. If Rodney asked her about him, she would reach for a cigarette, light it, and shoot him a look that said, Boy, why are you bugging me with this?
But his curiosity grew. The other boys at Peshine Avenue School talked about their fathers all the time, and when he went to their houses to play, the men were always around. Rodney wanted what they had. "What was my father like?" he asked his oldest sister, Pam. "Did he look like me?" She replied brusquely. "Rodney, he was your father. Him and Mommy used to get into it, but he was a good father, and he died." For years, that was about all anyone would tell him: that James was a drunk, that he beat his mother, and that he passed away when they were young. He learned to live with the unanswered questions but told himself he'd ask his mother about it again someday, when he was older.
Rodney spent most of his childhood outside, playing sports. Each building, and block, had its own baseball, football, and basketball teams and challenged each other to games in a section of the park they called "the battlefield." Rodney became one of the neighborhood's biggest and best athletes, and Clara signed him up for the South Ward Little League. He loved the regimen — the daily practices, the repetitive drills, the cookouts and parades, the adult men who seemed to care so much about helping him do well. He wore his first uniform — white polyester pants, candy-striped stirrup socks, tight powder-gray T-shirt with BRAVES in burgundy across the chest — to school on the day before his first game in spring 1976. He became a star pitcher and fantasized about making it big and coming back to visit the neighborhood, kids chasing after him like he was Muhammad Ali. With his success on the field came an aura of cool that attracted the affections of girls and the envy of boys. Many of the younger kids started calling him Brown Hornet — after the superhero in the Fat Albert cartoon series — because of his long face and stiff voice.
At home, Clara had increasing difficulty keeping the kids fed. They ate whatever was in the cupboard, which was sometimes just a can of beans, or cereal, or syrup sandwiches. Their neighbors saw what was happening and tried to help. One woman across the hall would go food shopping for them; others invited them over for dinner. Rodney didn't like having to depend on others. He felt a growing desire to change things. Lying in bed with his stomach growling, Rodney would tell himself, I can't go another night like this.
* * *
In the summer of 1981, when Rodney turned fourteen and was preparing to enter his freshman year at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, he approached a man who sold joints in his building. Rodney asked if he could help out, and the man agreed, apparently figuring that he would make more money in the long run with an apprentice. He gave Rodney 100 joints, which Rodney sold for a dollar apiece, and took home $30 or $40. Soon, Rodney was selling 250 joints a day and pocketing $100. The money opened up his life, giving him not just the cash to join other kids at the pinball machines and hot dog joints, but also to buy groceries. He didn't tell Clara where the money came from, and Clara chose not to ask.
Rodney was not only a weed peddler. He and his friends regularly took the bus to Plainfield, where they shoplifted jeans and shirts from Bamberger's. He also began shaking down a neighborhood kid who worked at McDonald's, demanding a cut of the boy's paycheck and threatening to beat him up if he did not comply.
Rodney began to admire the neighborhood "old heads," career criminals who worked the corners and sometimes shared their expertise with the younger boys. "Like any kid who grows up without a father figure, I was looking for that manly type," Rodney told me. One of them let him sell some cocaine on consignment. After a few weeks of modest but steady sales, the old head gave Rodney a career-changing piece of advice: cut out the middle man and go into business for yourself. "Go uptown." Rodney didn't know where uptown was, so the old head offered to show him. They drove over the George Washington Bridge into New York, stopping at the intersection of Broadway and West 163rd Street, in Washington Heights. It was the center of a sprawling open-air drug market run by Dominican drug gangs who worked with Colombians to supply the entire Eastern Seaboard with heroin and cocaine — traditional powder, and a new form known as crack.
Rodney and his guide were inundated by calls from dealers and touts: "Yo, Papi, over here!" "Ay, Papi, what you need?" Rodney bought five grams of powder cocaine for $100. Then he went to a pharmacy and picked up dozens of glass vials and a container of Inositol, a type of sugar that was commonly used as a cutting agent. Back in Newark, Rodney sold the entire package in a few hours, without leaving his building, and cleared about $250. That night, he found a ride back to New York, bought ten more grams of coke, and sold half of it before bed. He finished the rest the following morning and returned to Washington Heights again. "From that," Rodney told me, "I was on my way."
Even as he was getting pulled into the drug business, baseball remained Rodney's singular passion. He was turning into a powerful pitcher and had ambitions of making the Shabazz High School varsity baseball team, whose coach had recruited him in Little League. Rodney had all the tools to become a star: fluid motion, long stride, and good command of his pitches, which included a fastball with movement. He also possessed a certain quality that the coach didn't think could be taught: a poise that allowed him to battle through the most difficult situations. Rodney tried not to let his money-making pursuits affect his prospects on the ball field, but soon that became impossible.
During Rodney's freshman year, a boy got shot at Shabazz in an argument over a pair of sneakers. Before then, only the roughest street criminals carried guns. But a new era was dawning across Newark and the rest of urban America, fueled by crack. By dealing crack, young men found an easy way to buy things that otherwise would have been impossible to obtain. Their goal was to be "the freshest" on the block, the one with the biggest "dookie rope" gold necklace, the flyest sheepskin coat, the latest British Walker shoes, the sharpest fade haircut. Smoking a concentrated form of cocaine was more addictive than snorting it, and the customers, formerly respectable people whom the young men might have looked up to, people with nine-to-five jobs and tight families, got hooked and became, in street jargon, "fiends" who did whatever they needed to do to buy their next hit. At the same time, the crack trade gave rise to a secondary industry of "stick-up boys" who specialized in robbing dealers at gunpoint. Soon teenagers were arming themselves for protection and gunning after those who ripped them off. Authorities were caught flat-footed; the Newark Police Department's narcotics unit was tiny then, with maybe a half-dozen detectives working days and another half-dozen at night. Between 1984 and 1989, Newark's crime rate jumped by 41 percent, exceeding those of New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
Elizabeth Avenue became an open-air drug market. That development coincided with an economic downturn in which many of the low-rise apartment buildings were lost to the city in tax foreclosures, then appropriated by squatters and dealers. The high-rises continued to operate, but with vacancy rates that forced owners to seek more federal subsidies. With the new money came requirements to keep rents affordable for low-income residents, which in turn triggered a turnover of the tenant rolls: poorer people moved in, and the remaining middle-class residents fled. Many of those who left blamed the rental subsidies for the neighborhood's rapid decline. "People came in who didn't value the community as much as we did," one told me. "And the drugs. Some of the kids we knew as babies blended in with the new tenants and unleashed hell in that neighborhood. It became just like the projects."
Excerpted from A Chance To Win by Jonathan Schuppe. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Schuppe. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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