Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball®
by Lance and Robin Van Auken
“Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball is a delightful walk down the storied history of Little League Baseball. For those of us who played the dreams of your youth, it brings back mighty memories. For those of us reluctant adults who still dream, it’s a wonderful reminder of what might have been.”
—John Grisham, bestselling author
“In (Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball), authors Lance and Robin Van Auken lionize Carl Stotz, the father of Little League. A man of many talents, Stotz wanted his nephews to have the joy of playing in uniforms with a real team under standardized rules. His was an idea with potential. Today more than 100 countries around the world have such programs, allowing kids from different cultures to meet under the umbrella of baseball.”
“Did you know that George W. was a Little Leaguer? More to the point, humorist Dave Barry is also a graduate of Little League, and he writes an amusing introduction to a solid book about this American institution. Little League has now been around for more than half a century, and this new history (Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball) fills a gap in library collections that often focus solely on major league baseball history. This well-illustrated, popularly written account should be on the shelves of every library that serves a community with a Little League team.”
Preface and Acknowledgments of Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball
First-time visitors to Williamsport, Pennsylvania — the birthplace of Little League Baseball — may be surprised to find two shrines to Little League. There’s a Carl E. Stotz Field in Williamsport and a Howard J. Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport. “Why two?” some might ask. “And which is the real home of Little League Baseball?”
At first glance, these are easy questions to answer. Carl E. Stotz Field is near the site of Little League’s founding, but it is no longer Little League’s home. Lamade Stadium, part of the Little League Baseball International Headquarters complex and home of Little League since 1959, is where the Little League Baseball World Series is played every year. For this reason, it is the place most people think of when they think of Little League.
But behind these simple answers lies a much more fascinating and complicated story, one that still has deep reverberations in the Williamsport community, and one that will undoubtedly surprise many fans of Little League. That is the story we tell in this book.
It has been a challenge to digest six decades of history involving 30 million people, because the story of Little League Baseball also belongs to countless boys and girls, and to their moms and dads. Carl Stotz, Little League, Peter J. McGovern, Dr. Creighton J. Hale, Stephen D. Keener, and everyone who ever played in or volunteered for Little League are intertwined forever. We need to be respectful of the contributions of those who helped to shape the program, and of the fact that they have also, in a way, helped to shape the country and the world at the same time.
This story has many heroes. Carl Stotz, for instance, was the right man at the right place at the right time for Little League to thrive in its infancy. Dr. Creighton Hale is a hero as well, and his contributions to Little League Baseball (and to baseball in general) are well documented. Steve Keener too is a hero, for his fence mending and his rock-solid love and devotion — first to his family, then to Little League.
We the authors are typical of Little League families worldwide. Our generation was lucky to have families involved in building the first Little Leagues, and we hope our children will carry on that tradition. Every spring, we gathered at our local Cross Bayou Little League field in Largo, Florida, to prepare for opening day. The final touch to the field has always been the planting of fresh flowers around the monument at Robert D. Van Auken Field. Robert Van Auken was a Little League pioneer, and today his children, their wives, and his grandchildren still manage teams, mow grass, umpire, clean concession stands, and raise children in that healthful environment.
Our branch of the Van Auken family came to Williamsport to become a part of the Little League Headquarters family. We moved because of our love for Little League and in the belief that, as an organization, Little League can do great things for the children of the world.
This is not to say that each of us has experienced Little League in the same way. One of us has fond memories of being coached by Dad, watching older brothers play ball, and growing up as a “ball field rat.” The other (guess who!) remembers watching her brothers play ball and not being allowed to play herself, because she was a girl, and recalls that she was a teenager by the time Little League admitted girls. Our recollections of Little League as adults have been very different as well. One of us had the thrill of coaching our son and umpiring in the World Series, and the other had the satisfaction (perhaps not quite as thrilling) of working in the concession stand, running bake sales, and cheering from the stands. Thus, it is fair to say that our different experiences have given us distinct views on Little League Baseball. This has been a real advantage in writing this book, because not all readers’ experiences with Little League have been or will be the same. We’ve tried to be sensitive to that in telling Little League’s story. When the opportunity arose to write this book, we eagerly took on the task. A comprehensive history of Little League has never been written, even though Little League has touched tens of millions of lives since 1938, when Carl Stotz made a promise to his nephews in his backyard. We were compelled to write, also, by our love and profound respect for baseball itself, and the realization that so much of life’s highs and lows are reflected in the complexities — and simplicities — of a baseball game.
We are especially indebted to Little League Baseball, Incorporated, for the use of its archives, and to Steve Keener, Dr. Hale, and the many dedicated employees of Little League who were invaluable to this effort. We also wish to thank Jim and Karen Stotz Myers, Grayce Stotz, and Monya Lee Adkins for the use of Carl Stotz’s memorabilia, and Penny and Jim Vanderlin and all the Original League volunteers for their encouragement. We are grateful to Kenneth Loss for use of excerpts from the book A Promise Kept: The Story of the Founding of Little League Baseball, by Carl Stotz as told to Loss, and to Miami Herald columnist and Little League graduate Dave Barry, for his generosity and for making our lives brighter with his stories. Thanks are also due to Putsee Vannucci for many of the pictures from the Little League archives used in this book.
Many thanks to the Lycoming County Historical Society, and to the James V. Brown Library. We appreciate the use of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette archives and the support of Jim Carpenter, Jim Barr, Dan White, Dave Troisi, and, in particular, Janice Ogurcak. Special thanks to Lou Hunsinger Jr. and David Voight for sharing their considerable knowledge of baseball.
In addition, we cannot overlook the importance of three women, Margaret Gisolo, Katherine Massar, and Maria Pepe, whose courage and pioneer spirit helped to shape the future of Little League, of baseball, and of sports in general.
We are grateful to Scott and Kathie Rosenberg for their generosity and friendship. We are also grateful to Jeff Elijah for allowing us to reprint his essay on the first Little League program in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
We also wish to thank Peter J. Potter, editor-in-chief of Penn State University Press, for inviting us to write this book, and Peggy Hoover, copy editor, for her extraordinary patience and expertise. The entire staff has been professional, friendly, and thorough.
We will never forget Charlie and Vivian Brush, Cyle and Calvin Van Auken, Don and Carol Machen, Lynn Kasica, Larry Smith, Frank Dubee, John Boland, John Ambler, Bob Gibson, Chip Ford, Fred Andress, the Staffeld family, the Pauley family, Brian Adair, Kevin Smalley, Kenny Danielski, Bernie Futchko, Alan and Donna Godfrey, Gray Rutherford, and the countless volunteers we have worked beside in leagues in Florida and Pennsylvania.
Finally, thank you to our families for being so supportive. We love you all.
Dave Barry Recalls
I played Little League Baseball in the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was growing up in Armonk, New York. Just about all the boys in my class were in Little League; it dominated our lives in the late spring and early summer. We started around second grade, playing in what was called the “Farm Team” league; our uniforms were baseball hats, and T-shirts.
When we got older and more skillful, we got to go to the “big league,” which was the Little League. We were issued real baseball uniforms (some of which had been worn by Armonk boys before us). I loved wearing my uniform; I thought it was the coolest article of clothing I owned.
The Armonk Little League teams were named after real Major League Baseball teams: the Dodgers, Giants, Yankees, Red Sox, etc. I was on the Indians. My uniform shirt said “Indians” across the front, but the shirt was a little too big for me (or I was a little too small for the shirt) such that the “I” and the “s” kind of got lost under my arms, so it looked like my team was called the “ndian.”
It’s funny, but after forty years, I can’t remember much else about a lot of the boys I grew up with, but if you give me one of their names, I can usually remember what Little League team he played on.
I was never a particularly good player. I threw left-handed, so I got to play first base, which I liked because I got to be involved in a lot of plays. I hated playing in the outfield, because I was never any good at judging where fly balls would land. They almost never landed in my glove.
I wasn’t much of a power hitter, but I could usually make contact with the ball. Fortunately, the quality of fielding was such that if you put the ball into play — even only a few feet from home plate — there was always a chance you’d wind up with a triple.
Little League was my first, and best, exposure to organized sports. I learned a lot: what it feels like to have to perform under pressure; how to be part of, and have obligations to, a team; how to win; and how to lose. (We Indians got pretty good at losing.) I saw that hard competition could bring players on both teams closer together; I also saw that the desire to win, if uncontrolled, could turn some people — adults as well as kids — into jerks.
But most of my memories of Little League are positive. And I still like to play first base.
Pulitzer Prize– winning journalist Dave Barry played Little League Baseball as a boy in the 1950s and 1960s in Armonk, New York.
On a typical spring evening, Little League Baseball is played on 12,000 fields in every U.S. state and 104 other countries by 360,000 children. The next day, a new group of 360,000 takes the fields.
With more than 4 million people playing and volunteering on Little League fields each year, the story of the world’s largest organized youth-sports program is the story of everyone. Every conceivable human emotion is possible on a Little League Baseball field. From its tragedies to its triumphs, Little League is the story of every son, daughter, mother, father, neighbor, and friend. It’s where everyone involved learns the lessons of character, courage, and loyalty, whether they become astronauts aboard the space shuttle, Pulitzer Prize–winning columnists, Olympic athletes, rock ‘n’ roll singers, professional baseball players, or just ordinary people. In turn, they teach their own children those same lessons.
Each Little League season climaxes with the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It is truly a world championship, even though only eleven-and twelve-year-olds can play. More than 7,400 teams in 104 countries begin playoffs less than two months before the championship game. In fact, as many games are played in the fifty days leading up to the World Series as are played in six full seasons of Major League Baseball. ABC-TV has broadcast the final game on Wide World of Sports every year since 1963. Most of the preliminary Little League World Series games leading up to the championship are televised nationally on ESPN and ESPN2.
The games of the Little League World Series are played on the Kentucky bluegrass of Howard J. Lamade Stadium. Athletic-field experts lend their time year-round to help maintain the playing surface, which rivals most professional diamonds. With permanent seating for 10,000 spectators, the stadium includes terraced hills beyond the outfield fence that accommodate 30,000 more spectators on blankets, lawn chairs, and grass.
Little League World Series participants play on a global stage. Upon arrival in Williamsport, a Little League official reminds them that their actions — how they react to good fortune as well as to adversity — will help determine the world’s opinion of their hometown. Twenty-two nations or territories have sent teams to the Little League World Series, and some have welcomed the young ambassadors home with ceremonies befitting war heroes — whether they won or lost in Williamsport. For most of the eleven- and twelve-year-olds, it will be their first time on television, and they will be watched by more than 10 million people.
After a Little League World Series game, the winning and losing teams make the long trek up the hill to dormitories. Swarming fans block the way, seeking autographs, and bold, flirtatious girls bestow kisses and hugs on blushing adolescent boys. A few players are asked to speak, along with their adult managers, at a news conference in a tent behind the stadium. Reporters range from part-time writers for weekly newspapers to award-winning “big guns” from Sports Illustrated.
About 120 miles north of Lamade Stadium is another town, sleeping at the headwaters of the Susquehanna, the west branch of which flows through Williamsport. That place, Cooperstown, New York, also is known for its legendary roots in baseball.
Four miles northwest of Lamade is Bowman Field, the second-oldest minor league baseball field still operated as such. About 200 feet beyond the outfield fence of Bowman Field is a monument to an event that occurred there in 1939, when the world was a very different place: Frozen in granite, three little boys in baggy baseball uniforms reach skyward with mitts for an unseen ball, at the site of the first Little League game.
Despite its apple-pie image, the story of Little League is not without controversy, even upheaval. During the decades since the first Little League was formed in 1939, Little League survived its own civil war of sorts, and has played a role in race relations, the cold war, gender equity, and easing ethnic tensions in Bosnia.
Little League has grown in scope far beyond anything its founder, Carl Stotz, or anyone else in 1939, could have imagined. In some ways, and in thousands of communities, it closely resembles the league Stotz and his followers had envisioned. But in many other ways, it is far different.
It is not surprising that among the 30 million or so who have worn Little League uniforms, the ranks have included hundreds of eventual Major League players and a handful of Baseball Hall of Famers. National Hockey League players, National Basketball Association players, National Football League players, business tycoons, rock ‘n’ roll stars, one U.S. President and one vice president, actors, U.S. senators, Rhodes Scholars, astronauts, and Pulitzer Prize–winners have all played Little League baseball.
So this is the story of Little League Baseball, but it is more than a sports story. It is also the story of Little League’s phenomenal growth, from thirty players and a few volunteers in a sleepy Pennsylvania town, to the largest organized children’s sports program in the world; the story of detractors and benefactors; and the story of how Little League has reflected — and affected — American society.
“When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing. I told him I wanted to be a real Major League Baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”
—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Thirty-Fourth President of the United States