Wishing a very happy 75th birthday to Little League baseball
Seventy-five years ago this Friday, organized baseball for kids began on a small field two-thirds the size of a regular diamond in Williamsport, Penn.
Today, Little League International is composed of over 160,000 teams in 80 countries, with millions of viewers — 3.9 million in 2013 to be exact — tuning in every August to watch its World Series. Not a bad outcome for the vision of oil company clerk Carl Stotz, who received 56 rejections from potential sponsors for the league he sought to create before landing a $30 check from Lycoming Dairy.
I know there are many volunteers with Little League today who can empathize with Stotz. Not just from assumption, but from firsthand experience.
I got into what would eventually become West Plains Little League in December 2003 when Cheney High School teacher Adam Smith contacted me to let me know about a meeting. The meeting, held in Medical Lake’s City Hall council chambers, was between two groups of community-oriented individuals with hearts and aspirations in the right places that wanted to bring baseball to elementary and middle school aged children.
One group was advocating for Little League International, one for Cal Ripken Baseball. I went to cover it as a good sports story, but after listening to several hours of great discussion and exchanges of views, found myself raising my hand when a call went out for volunteers for the first West Plains Little League board of directors.
Stotz faced many obstacles in getting Little League going, obstacles those trying to get WPLL started fully understand. We were fortunate. We had the work of Stotz and others to fall back on, but in some cases, had to blaze new ground as we came up against circumstances unique to this area.
We also experienced the same apprehensions. Like Stotz, we wondered how many kids would sign up, resigning ourselves to feeling good if we got over 100, but experiencing elation as that number reached over 250.
Elation soon morphed into frantic scrambling as we realized we had more players than coaches for teams. As the player agent assigned to manage registrations and rosters, I have fond (?) memories of late night phone calls with Smith, reviewing registrations for parents we felt could likely be coaches.
If you picture the State Farm Insurance commercial where a wife sees her husband on the phone at 3 a.m. talking to an agent about coverage, you’re not far from Smith and my relationship back then.
Since those early days of running a league using technology more akin to stone knives and bear skins, WPLL has evolved into one of the classiest, most progressive leagues in the area. It grew rapidly in the early years, creating challenges each time, but challenges a dedicated group of volunteers I was privileged to work with faced and faced with enthusiasm, and maybe just a bit of exhaustion.
In its 11 years of existence, WPLL has recorded over 4,200 registrations, averaging over 500 participants the past 6-7 years. It’s done this in no small measure through the dedication of volunteers serving on the board, coaching — often doing both — and helping in any way possible.
The league has benefited from sponsors willing to pony-up a couple hundred dollars that help keep registration fees down while providing good equipment, uniforms and in the case of All-Stars, the chance to travel to face unknown competition.
Someday, that travel may be out of state, with a little luck.
There are many unnamed volunteers who have helped Little League flourish in the 75 years since Stotz got that first three-team league going. Some volunteers that should be named out here are Smith, Mike Paulson, Tad Richardson, Jeff King, Ed Franklin, Dan Wagner, Rob Beamer, Crystal Southwick, Tricia Dormaier, Joe Cheevers, Amber and Jeff Hughes; the list can go on.
And it does, as each year more volunteers step forward to make sure area kids get a chance to grow and learn to play “America’s Favorite Pastime,” just as Stotz experienced 75 years ago.
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.