It’s not really possible to read Bob Muzikowski like a book. But for those who want to know more about him, his book Safe at Home is a great place to start.
Muzikowski was born in New Jersey, attended Columbia University where he played football and rugby, and temporarily left the university to start his own trucking company when the family ran low on money after his father died. On his way to undergraduate and master’s degrees, he abused alcohol and drugs and nearly lost everything. He recovered with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, a renewed faith in God, and Tina, the woman who in 1987 became his wife and later the mother of their seven children.
In 1988, the Muzikowskis moved to Chicago. His wife was a trader for J.P. Morgan and Bob opened a new brokerage office. One block from their home in the Windy City was a vacant city block at the corners of Sedgwick and Division streets, a lot that caught Bob’s imagination as he jogged past it each morning.
It dawned on him that his new neighborhood, the infamous Cabrini-Green Housing project area, could use a Little League program. In 1991 he launched the Near North Little League with the help of Al Carter, an African-American neighbor who shared his passion for the game.
When the response from the neighborhood proved too much for the two men to handle alone, Muzikowski turned to the business contacts he’d developed through his growing insurance brokerage business. Muzikowski made it clear to them, however, that he didn’t want just money—a relatively modest $700 for team uniforms, gloves, and bats—but their time as well. If a man agreed to support a team financially, he also had to coach it. These men, many of them former athletes, like Muzikowski, and all with competitive spirits, accepted the challenge. Today, according to Muzikowski, the program is the largest inner-city Little League program in America.
The men’s presence is necessary, Muzikowski told Philanthropy, because “good men, married men, need to be there and set the examples. We have men that succeeded that I coached 13 years ago who are now back, married, with kids. These are the models.”
The model worked well. The original Near North Little League spawned the Near West Little League, which plays its games in the shadow of the Chicago Bulls’ home, the United Center. It’s a neighborhood that well-to-do, mostly suburban fans motor in and out of as quickly as possible.
Muzikowski’s idea also took root in New York in the form of the East Harlem Little League, which serves some 330 kids, according to Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He recruited a number of the men from Cantor Fitzgerald, a global financial services provider, with the same challenge he laid before his friends in Chicago—the league needs your money and your time as a coach.
The final chapter of Safe at Home is dated Mid-April 2001, and is an accounting of the children, both won and lost, whose lives have been bettered by Muzikowski’s efforts. Shortly after publication, however, the league suffered a major emotional trauma when the terrorist attacks of September 11 took out a number of the men of Cantor Fitzgerald who ran the East Harlem Little League.
Potentially more destructive to all three leagues than the catastrophe of September 11, however, might be the day-to-day violence that Muzikowski sees. It’s been with him from the beginning of the league and never seems to end. For example, Miles Blackman, a longtime league umpire was bludgeoned to death just three days before Muzikowski’s interview with Philanthropy .
Muzikowski is battling the violence that is robbing Chicago’s children’s future with more than baseball. He’s currently building Chicago Hope Academy, a private non-denominational Christian high school on the Near West Side. It will be the first non-denominational Christian high school in Chicago. To help finance the school, which will open this fall with 50 students, he’s sold one-half of his brokerage business.
Chicago Hope Academy also hopes to get a boost from a suit that the Little League has brought against the makers of the movie Hardball, in which Keanu Reeves played the role—badly—of Muzikowski. The producers of the movie gave Muzikowski’s Little League teams none of the film’s profits. But more disturbing to Muzikowski is the film’s portrayal of black youths. Reeves’ highly publicized quote, “I hope we can have the kids talk the way they really talk, let them swear,” was blatantly offensive to the Little League, the coaches, and their families. Muzikowski continues, “I’ve never been talked to that way by kids on our teams.”
For his neighborhood, Muzikowski believes strongly that private faith-based schools are the answer. The kids need the hope that faith brings, he says. “It’s so macabre today.”
The urgency of life on the West Side of Chicago motivates Muzikowski to join The Philanthropy Roundtable. “I am looking for like-minded partners for advice and other help.” He also looks to share his own experiences with peers and has already spoken at a Roundtable meeting in Florida. “I hope to inspire people at the Roundtable to give with more intensity.”