Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Roots of Little League Baseball

By: C.G. Morelli

As long as baseball has existed, American boys and girls have fantasized about stepping up to the plate and hitting the winning home run for their team.  For nearly 70 years, a very familiar organization has been giving youngsters just this opportunity.  That organization, of course, is Little League Baseball.  People as ordinary as your mailman and as widely known as former major league star Gary Sheffield can say they have something in common…they were once Little Leaguers.  But how did Little League Baseball climb its way into the hearts of America’s cities and towns?

Shrinking the Playing Field

If you’re ever driving through Pennsylvania with your parents, you may pass through the town of Williamsport, where in 1938, a baseball enthusiast named Carl Stotz stumbled upon the idea for the country’s first organized youth baseball program.  Stotz had no sons of his own, but his nephews, Jimmy and Major, kept him out practicing on the ball field nearly every night.  He began rounding up kids from his neighborhood to make the practices more interesting.  Over time, he began experimenting with smaller field dimensions and modified equipment that made it easier for younger children to play the game.  What he had invented was a kid’s version of the game of baseball. 

The following year, Stotz reached out for help from the Williamsport community so that he could begin a league.  Many businesses in the area were willing to sponsor his teams, paying a small fee to help buy equipment and uniforms.  With everyone’s help, Stotz was able to form a three-team league.  His intent was to use the league as a place to teach the children the values of character, courage, and loyalty.  He decided to name it
Little League.

As news of the league spread across Pennsylvania, youth baseball programs based on Stotz’s ideas popped up all over the place.  The leagues formed a network they called Little League Baseball.  By 1974, the organization expanded to include not only boy’s baseball, but also softball for young girls, and senior ball for boys and girls in their teens.  By 1990, it expanded again to include a “challenger” division for mentally and physically handicapped children.

There are now over 200,000 Little League baseball teams playing in programs across all 50 states and in more than 80 different countries around the globe. 

Little League’s Grand Event

During World War II, many fathers were called away to serve overseas in the military.  This made it hard to keep youth baseball programs running since there were less people around to volunteer their time.  As a result, Little League Baseball appeared to be dying out.

In 1947, the organization’s board of directors held a meeting they hoped would help save their game. They decided to host a national tournament in Williamsport for all Little League teams to compete in.  Their goal was to crown a national champion. Later renamed the Little League World Series (LLWS), the original event featured 11 teams from across the Northeastern United States. The championship game drew close to 3,000 spectators and when news of it spread across the nation, it brought Little League Baseball with it.  Within a few years, the organization had a program in every state. 

The LLWS continues to be an American tradition. Each year, without fail, the mini-classic gives us a sneak peek of the major league stars of the future.

Major Little Leaguers in the World Series

1971 – Lloyd McClendon, a former major league player and coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates, hit five home runs in five at-bats for his Gary, Indiana team against Taiwan in the LLWS.

1980 – Former slugger Gary Sheffield led his team from Belmont Heights Little League of Tampa, FL to the LLWS title over Chinese Taipei.

1993 – Sean Burroughs, formerly of the Padres and Devil Rays, pitched two no-hitters for his Long Beach, CA team on their way to a second straight LLWS championship

Who Knew??

  • The shortest LLWS game ever played took place between Hagerstown, MD and Kankakoo, IL in 1950.  The game lasted only one hour

  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1959, proclaimed the second week in June to be National Little League Week

  • In 2001, a field was built on the South Lawn of the White House, as two Little League tee ball teams played the first-ever organized baseball game on the presidential grounds.

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