The summer of Mo’ne Davis’ magical Little League World Series
A play-by-play of the historic 2014 ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover that almost didn’t happen
LeBron James told the world, “I’m coming home.” New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter embarked upon a farewell tour in his 20th and final season. The U.S. men’s basketball team won gold at the FIBA World Cup in Spain, and Germany’s national soccer team emerged victorious at the World Cup in Brazil. And Serena Williams became the first woman to win three consecutive U.S. Open titles since the 1970s. The summer of 2014 revitalized the typically dreaded period of the sports calendar with memorable performances from the most dominant competitors around the globe. Yet somehow that brief era belonged to only one athlete: Little League phenom pitcher Mo’ne Davis, 13.
Mo’ne — who is now 16 and still chasing her dream of playing Division I college basketball, though she hasn’t given up pitching just yet — led Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons into Williamsport, Pennsylvania, becoming the first African-American girl to play in the Little League World Series. But the history-making didn’t stop there. She also became the first girl to pitch a shutout and earn a win, after a 4-0 victory over Nashville in her first start of the tournament. With long, swinging braids, piercing hazel eyes and undeniable ability on the mound, Davis threw a 70 mph fastball that she paired beautifully with an array of off-speed pitches. And on Aug. 25, 2014, she appeared on the front of Sports Illustrated — the first Little Leaguer in history on the cover of the magazine.
Leading up to the 2014 Little League World Series, longtime Sports Illustrated cover photographer Al Tielemans, a native of North Philadelphia, pitched a story to the magazine about the star female pitcher of his home state Dragons. The magazine sent two reporters to join him in Williamsport. Yet, as much potential as there was in the story, many things had to fall into place for Mo’ne to actually make the cover.
On Aug. 9, 2014, while on a two-day vacation in Philadelphia with his wife, Tielemans picked up an issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer. He stumbled across a story about a local Little League team playing the following night in Connecticut for a spot in the Little League World Series. By the end of the next day, Taney was headed to the Little League World Series to represent the Mid-Atlantic Region after a three-hit, six-strikeout, shutout performance in an 8-0 win over a team from Newark, Delaware — from a 13-year-old female pitcher named Mo’ne Davis. Slowly but surely, Mo’ne became the focus of sports chatter around the country, and Tielemans wanted to capitalize on the buzz. He quickly drafted an Excel spreadsheet for Sports Illustrated managing editor Chris Stone that mapped out the entire double-elimination tournament of the Taney Dragons and, more importantly, what it would take to get Mo’ne on the cover of the magazine.
Mo'ne Davis fires a dominant complete game shutout and Pennsylvania advances to the #LLWS. She was lights out.
— Cut4 (@Cut4) August 10, 2014
Mo'Ne Davis cool as ice before finishing her complete game shutout to earn a trip to the LLWS pic.twitter.com/ORGGPTKxJX
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) August 10, 2014
Meanwhile, Chen had just wrapped a cover story on Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen (the story would appear in the magazine’s Sept. 8, 2014, issue), before boarding a plane departing from Pittsburgh. Soon, he’d receive a call from his editor about a Little League pitcher he’d never heard of.
Leading up to the 2014 Little League World Series, how much did you know about Mo’ne Davis?
Tielemans: I heard a team from Philly was playing for a regional championship. I saw that they won and that they were going to the Little League World Series. That Monday morning, they started having Mo’ne Davis on the morning talk shows, just kind of mentioning it as a blip, like, ‘Oh, a girl pitcher pitched the Philadelphia team’s way to the Little League World Series.’ But that was about it.
Chen: I got off the plane having just finished a story. I was kind of in a cave for that story, not really aware of what was going on. The magazine’s baseball editor at the time, Steve Cannella, I remember getting this phone call from him as I’m getting off the plane. He asks me, ‘Does the name Mo’ne sound familiar to you? … Have you been following her story?’ My answer is, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ I think it was that afternoon when she had the breakout game, struck out a lot of hitters and threw a shutout. I think Twitter went nuts and by the time I landed a lot of people had heard about her, and all those people were tweeting about her. I hadn’t checked my phone, or watched ESPN or anything. … It just goes to show you how quickly things snowball in this day and age. You wake up one morning and no one’s heard of Mo’ne Davis. Then you get a phone call and you’re one of the last people who’ve heard of her story. It wasn’t the huge sensation it would become, but within the sports world it was already exploding. I had no plans to go to the Little League World Series. We had no plans to send a writer.
Tielemans: I felt like the media was restrained about her and the team going into the Little League World Series. It wasn’t overboard. It was respectful about the fact that they were kids. Then, when she pitched on Friday, obviously it blew up.
Can you set the scene of Taney’s Friday afternoon game against Nashville, and Mo’ne’s shutout?
Chen: I had a great reporter working with me in Williamsport. Her name is Emily Kaplan (now of ESPN). We kind of tag-teamed. I wrote the story, but she did a huge amount of reporting … I went to Philadelphia and did a lot of reporting on the city and Mo’ne’s school. I watched the game that Friday on TV. Of course, I show up there and everyone in Philadelphia is rooting for her.
Tielemans: It was an overcast day. Kind of threatening rain, but it never did. It was your classic first day at Williamsport. There was a buzz because it was getting started. … It was a great day to shoot. … Williamsport is a great place to shoot. You’re just so close. Just the fact that I had proposed this story … I felt like I was sitting on something that could really explode, and that’s always exciting. Everybody was there talking about Mo’ne.
Chen: If they lose, if she doesn’t do well in her start, it’s still a wonderful story, but is it a story we should be running in the magazine the following week, when there are many other things going on in the sports world? If they had lost that game on Friday, then the conversation is obviously every different.
Tielemans: When she won, and was dominant, it became a great story.
The first girl to appear at the Little League World Series for a U.S. team in 10 years, Mo’ne dominated. In Taney’s 4-0 win over Nashville in the opening round of the tournament on Friday afternoon, Mo’ne threw 70 pitches, with eight strikeouts and zero walks, while allowing just two hits. Before her performance, no girl had pitched her team to a win or thrown a shutout at the Little League World Series. The victory advanced Taney to a game against Pearland, Texas, on Sunday night. With Sports Illustrated going to press on Monday night, Taney needed to win for Mo’ne to make the cover of the magazines that would hit newsstands on Wednesday. A loss on Sunday would’ve brought Taney to face double-elimination on Monday and potentially be eliminated before the magazine’s release. Down 6-5 in the bottom of the sixth and final inning against Texas, Taney rallied with two runs to win the game, 7-6, which kept the team alive until Thursday and meant Mo’ne was destined to grace a national cover.
All we can say is WOW! What a comeback by @taneybaseball! CONGRATULATIONS! You're making all of Philly so proud!
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) August 18, 2014
At what point did you realize you were writing, or shooting, for a possible cover?
Chen: After her performance Friday, when she threw the shutout and won the game against Nashville, when I woke up Saturday morning and knew she was the talk of the sports world, I knew that this was potentially a cover story.
Tielemans: That’s essentially what I originally proposed. It was like, ‘Hey, this is a story. Here’s the deal — if this and this happens, you can put her on the cover and you’ve got three days before they can even be eliminated.’ But if something else happened that was more important, it could’ve been bumped easily. You go in with the idea and the people at the magazine make the decisions. You give them your material and just deal with whatever happens. It just so happened that it played out.
Chen: I had to start writing the story on Sunday knowing that there was a chance it wouldn’t run. Sunday night is the night that they played the game where they were down 6-5 going into the final inning and they scored two runs in the sixth inning to win that game. If they had lost that game, there wouldn’t have been a story in that issue of the magazine, and she obviously would not have been on the cover.
I didn’t know, for sure, that I was writing a cover story until Sunday evening around 9:30, 9:45, when that winning run was scored. I turned in the story the very next morning, and I don’t know why I remember this, but I was actually a little bit early filing.
What are some of Sports Illustrated covers of note that you’ve written or shot for? And where does the Mo’ne Davis cover rank in the conversation?
Chen: I had the Andrew McCutchen cover. Probably one of my more prominent ones was I did the cover story on the baseball player Josh Hamilton. That got a lot of buzz. I have a bunch of college football covers as well.
Tielemans: Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper on the baseball preview issue. I had the picture of Anthony Rizzo when the Cubs won the World Series for the cover. I did the NBA preview in 2014 with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. I did Nick Foles’ snow game. I did when Bubba Watson won the Masters. Portraits of David Price with the Rays and Joey Votto. I did the cover when the Steelers beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
Chen: The Mo’ne cover got more attention than any other cover I’ve written. I don’t think there’s any question about it. Spike Lee did a short documentary on Mo’ne. I went to Philadelphia to talk to him about it and was interviewed on camera. Spike Lee definitely has not called me up for any other cover stories I’ve done.
Tielemans: It’s wayyyyy up there. It’s kind of hard to match the Cubs win the World Series for the first time in 108 years. But a lot of the Mo’ne cover has to do with the fact that I pitched it, I mapped it out, I explained it, and all of the pieces fell into place. There’s so much luck involved in this business. I don’t get any attention out of getting the cover, but when the cover gets attention, it is cool. It’s pretty fun when your cover gets a lot of play, and it got a lot of play when Mo’ne was on TV. It was a cool feeling.
Chen: What makes me feel good about it is it was really the right 13-year-old. I imagine there are very few 13-year-olds on the planet that can really handle that kind of attention and pressure, everything that goes with being on the cover of a magazine. She was the right 13-year-old in terms of her being able to handle the attention, and the craze, and the history and the frenzy that came along with it. She was able to handle it. … All credit to her for that.
Tielemans: Going into it, I did not know that there had never been a Little Leaguer on the cover.
What do you think Mo’ne’s story meant to the sports world at the time in 2014? And what does it mean now?
— First Lady- Archived (@FLOTUS44) August 16, 2014
Mo'Ne Davis ……goosebumps You're awesome! Unbelievable
— Lil Wayne WEEZY F (@LilTunechi) August 15, 2014
This youngster is striking everybody out and she is a girl. I love it. #itsanewday
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) August 15, 2014
— andrew mccutchen (@TheCUTCH22) August 15, 2014
Wow Mo'ne Davis- Congrats on 1st no hitter in LL.See what happens when you let everyone play#letusplay.
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) August 16, 2014
Chen: A lot of things happened that summer, but August of 2014 will always be remembered as the summer of Mo’ne. She stole the show. She was front and center. She was just like a rock star or Brazilian soccer player. She only needed one name to be recognized.
Tielemans: What made it cool for me was she was just a kid … a normal 13-year-old kid. She was very friendly, very respectful, and as shy as the 13-year-old you’d expect her to be. She fit in with those guys completely normally.
Chen: I think it’s still a unique story for sure, because you peel away all the layers and it was a story about so many different things. About gender, about race, about so many larger things. But at the end of the day, it was a story about pitchers blowing away hitters in the Little League World Series, so I think her name still resonates with some people.
Tielemans: It was totally cool that a girl went in and mowed down a team of Little League players. She really went out and did it. Just a kid out there throwing baseballs. The normalcy of it all is what made it so absolutely cool.