The road to Williamsport is heavily traveled, despite the fact that this small city in northcentral Pennsylvania is home to only 29,000 people. That’s because Williamsport is home to the annual Little League Baseball World Series, which attracts more than 40,000 people to its final game, and millions of viewers to all 32 of its televised games on ESPN and ABC.  The series and its storied history is the subject of the newly updated book, “Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball,” by Lance and Robin Van Auken, and printed by The Omnibus Publishing.

The Little League Baseball season begins on a spring evening, when 300,000 children on 10,000 diamonds in every U.S. state and 80 other countries, take to the field. The next day, a new group of 300,000 play the game. This continues for several weeks until mid-summer when hundreds of thousands of players begin the International Tournament — the largest youth sports tournament in the world.  In less than two months, most of the 7,000 teams that started the tournament are eliminated from the competition.

Only 16 teams remain by the time the World Series begins: eight from international regions and eight from U.S. regions. The international teams come from Asia-Pacific, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe-Africa, Japan, Latin America, and Mexico. The U.S. teams are from states in the following eight regions: Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, New England, Northwest, Southwest, Southeast, and the West.

The players and their coaches converge in Williamsport, arriving by airplane, chartered bus, or an automobile, for the world’s best-known sports event: The Little League World Series. Sometimes, they arrive only a day or two before the hours before the World Series begins.

If they’re flying into the Williamsport Regional Airport, they’re in for a surprise. Commercial arrivals and departures are by jet, a recent upgrade over a prop plane, with two or three scheduled flights by American Airlines. The small airport has two gates, but only one is open. Baggage is collected from a corner after a set of garage doors are opened, usually by the same person who directed the jet to its stop near the terminal. Personnel at the airport are pulling double, often a triple duty. They’re marshaling the plane in, using batons, and then walking the wings to make sure all is well, unloading the baggage, and then refueling the jet.

If a team is heading into Williamsport from a larger airport, say Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or Harrisburg, then they’re most likely using the Susquehanna Trailways motorcoach, chartered by Little League International. This is a third-generation, family-owned motorcoach company based in the nearby town of Avis (population 1,484). Sometimes these buses arrive late at night, pulling alongside Dr. Creighton J. Hale International Grove around 2 a.m., the sleepy ballplayers yawning and stretching as they pile out of the large Prevost bus.

Some World Series players are close enough that their families arrive by car. They decorate their minivans and cars with white paint and flags, sometimes forming a caravan as they file into the city.

Once in town, they’re greeted with outstanding opportunities for fun and adventure, small-town style. Williamsport has a Grand Slam Parade at the beginning of the series, with floats that even include the Little League World Series teams and the volunteer umpires! As if the parade wasn’t enough, near the end of the series, Williamsport Welcomes the World with a massive street festival. Both events are managed by the Lycoming County Visitors’ Bureau.

Where to Stay, Where to Eat, What do Do?

Finding a spot at the World Series is as easy as it comes.

Admission to the Little League World Series, despite annual attendance of 300,000 or more, has always been free. Parking is free in the municipal lots near the stadium, and concessions are reasonably priced. In fact, no ticket is required for most of the games, and seating on the famed terraced hill beyond the outfield fence is never ticketed. All you have to do is show up. All the info on schedules, admissions, etc., is available on the Little League website.

What’s not so easy, at times, is finding a hotel room nearby. Because of the last-minute team entries and the fact that there are two local colleges (Lycoming College and the Pennsylvania College of Technology) that have students arriving at the same week, prices are generally higher, and accommodations are more scarce.

The Genetti Hotel in downtown Williamsport is a favorite for long-time visitors, especially since it’s the oldest hotel in continual existence and is used by Little League International for banquets and award events during the series. It’s also the tallest building in Williamsport, at 12 stories high! As the tallest building, it’s been used to raise Peregrine Falcons for reintroduction into the wild.

There are other chain hotels in the area, and during the month of August “Hotels in Williamsport PA” is probably a major Google Search term, but a memorable choice for the discerning traveler is the Peter Herdic Inn. This lovely bed-and-breakfast is a Victorian mansion that is next to its sister business, the Peter Herdic House Restaurant. These two properties are located on Millionaire’s Row, a historic section of the city with unique and beautiful architecture. Williamsport’s heyday was during the late 1800s during the lumber era, and Peter Herdic, the original owner of the property, was THE lumber baron of Williamsport.

The Herdic duo is a five-star combo, but there are other local favorites dining spots in Williamsport. Franco’s Lounge is another five-star restaurant that serves Italian food with flair. Check out that amazing venue for lunch and dinner, as well as occasional music nights. If you’re looking for a great breakfast with fantastic coffee, the Sawhorse Cafe highlights the offerings of local farms whenever possible, using only fresh ingredients. Downtown’s Alabaster Coffee Roaster & Tea Co. is a premier specialty coffee bar, but it doesn’t serve the premium brunch you’ll find at the Sawhorse.

The Moon and Raven is another downtown favorite, specializing in Irish pub food, but our hearts are captured by Ozzie and Mae’s Hacienda, which serves fresh, authentic Mexican food. And even though Williamsport is well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Acme Barbecue is a great place for ribs, brisket, and all things Southern. The Brickyard Restaurant and Ale House has some of the best burgers in town, and great for a late-night snack.

But back to where to stay while in Williamsport. In addition to chain hotels, there are online booking sites, such as Airbnb, that are popular alternatives for families looking to stay together while their Little Leaguer is at the series. VRBO, or Vacation Rentals By Owner, is another online choice for travelers looking for a residential option. There are camping outlets also, for visitors who want to enjoy the gorgeous natural beauty but pack your tents, campers, or RVs. Riverside Campground is situated along the West Branch of the Susquehanna and is a peaceful, relaxing option. It includes a children’s playground, a skateboard park, a soccer field, and a large pavilion available for special events.

Local Highlights

The 10,000-square-foot World of Little League Museum, recently completely renovated for $4.5 million, is on the same complex as the World Series stadiums, and is open every day. It features the tales and artifacts of the program’s storied past but also has a running track, a reaction time exhibit, and a jumping wall for those young and young-at-heart. There’s also a Babe Ruth uniform on display, the most complete, game-used uniform worn by The Bambino, plus two theaters, a fun touch table, and more. The Official Store includes a great selection of souvenirs and gifts for those back home.

Another don’t-miss historical place is Carl E. Stotz Memorial Field at Original League, the site of the first 12 Little League Baseball World Series tournaments before it moved to its larger, current location. The field and clubhouse have been lovingly restored to their 1950s grandeur. Across Fourth Street is Historic Bowman Field, home of the Class A Minor League Williamsport Crosscutters. The small stadium is the second-oldest Minor League ballpark in the country.

The history of the area can be found at two outstanding museums: The Thomas T. Taber Museum, and the Muncy Historical Society and Museum of History. And there’s no better way to learn about the lumber era than spending a relaxing afternoon or evening aboard the Hiawatha Paddlewheel Riverboat. While the boat leisurely is plying the waters of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, listen to the audio that describes the innovative lumber boom – a system of cribs and chains that captured millions of harvested logs as they floated down the river.

Fundraising for the Big Trip

It’s a difficult and expensive process to follow a team on the Road to Williamsport. Each player and coach/manager has travel expenses paid for by Little League International. Family members want to attend the games and cheer on their son or daughter, sister or brother, niece or nephew, grandson or granddaughter, are on their own. Thanks to social media sites, individuals are able to fundraise for the trip to the youth baseball mecca. Even if they’re not heading to the series, some teams are using Facebook and GoFundMe to offset expenses to regional championship games, like this Seminole Little League 9/10/11 Softball All-Stars team.

A Bit of History and Why Little League Is Beloved

There are several world series played, but it’s this event that features 11- and 12-year-olds that captures the hearts and minds of the world in mid-August. Why? It’s the oldest of all the various Little League tournaments, dating back to 1947.

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 teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair play, whether they become astronauts aboard the International Space Station, 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.

The games of the Little League World Series are played on the Kentucky bluegrass of Howard J. Lamade Stadium, and nearby, smaller, Volunteer Stadium. Athletic-field experts lend their time year-round to help maintain the playing surface, which rivals most professional diamonds. With permanent seating for about 3,000 spectators, Lamade Stadium includes terraced hills beyond the outfield fence that accommodate 40,000 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-eight 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 young players, it will be their first time on television, and they will be watched by more than 10 million people.

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 that founder Carl Stotz and his followers had envisioned. But in many other ways, it is far different.

The story of Little League Baseball 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.

Little League’s history is told with great detail at the World of Little League Museum, but if you can’t visit the site in person, learn more about Little League and its humble beginnings in Williamsport, in “Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball” by Lance and Robin Van Auken, and available through The Omnibus Publishing company.

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