Little League

If you want to find the purest form of baseball, look to Williamsport, PA, the home of the Williamsport CrossCutters. Actually, you can just look as close as your nearest Little League field, a place where memories are made and an occasional hero is born.

Everyone knows that baseball is a kid's game. It evolved in the United States from a series of kid's games played largely in England – a logical development since versions of the game first appeared in the U.S. in the late 18th Century, and the vast majority of people who lived in the former British colonies were… British.

Thus, the children of individuals who, as kids themselves, might have played one of the "o-cat" games, rounders, or English base-ball, naturally picked up their parents' and forefathers' games. And while what eventually did evolve into baseball was developed by what would now be called "yuppies" in New York City , it was still thought of as primarily a kids' game for many years.

It's still a kids' game, although there was a time, about 70 years ago, when it was pretty tough for kids – especially younger kids -- to play baseball. The 90 feet between the bases and 60 ½ feet from the pitcher's mound to home plate are not the easiest distances for younger children, say ages 12 and under, to successfully negotiate. And even if they could, when kids were choosing up sides for a game (a time –honored tradition that probably goes back to rounders), the younger kids often got left out by the big kids.

Well, in 1938, in Williamsport , Pa. , an adult decided to do something about this problem. And he deserves as much specific credit for being a baseball pioneer as Alexander Cartwright, William Wheaton, Doc Adams, Duncan Curry, Henry Chadwick, or any of the other individuals who have been given credit for inventing the game. You see, Carl Stotz, a resident of Williamsport , really DID invent a version of baseball, a game scaled to kids, in 1938. Stotz began experimenting with his version of baseball in the summer of 1938. Seems as if his nephews, Jimmy and Major Gehron, and their friends, both had trouble playing the full-sized game, and couldn't get on the fields anyway, because the big kids wouldn't pick them when they chose up sides. So, under Stotz' direction, they tried different field dimensions, a few different rules to try and ensure competitive balance, and even different sizes of baseballs during the course of the summer. They eventually settle of a pitching distance of 46 feet (interestingly, just about the same distance as professional baseball used into the 1880s) and 60 feet between the bases. A few informal games were played in the 1938 season so that, in the summer of 1939, Stotz was ready to establish what became Little League Baseball… an organized league scaled to kids age 12 and under and based on fair play and teamwork. The first league in '39 had three teams, each sponsored by a local business; Jumbo Pretzel, Lycoming Dairy and Lundy Lumber.

In case you're interested, the first Little League game took place on June 6, 1939 when Lundy Lumber defeated Lycoming Dairy, 23-8 (a not-uncommon Little League score even 70 years later.) However, Lycoming Dairy came back to win the first league title. Stotz' invention was successful enough that a second league was formed in Williamsport in 1940. Little League Baseball expanded outside of Pennsylvania in 1947 when a league was formed in Hammonton , New Jersey . By the next year, 1948, there were 94 leagues in Little League Baseball, and a team from St. Petersburg , Fla. , played in the Little League World Series. By the next year, 1949, Little League was featured in the Saturday Evening Post and Stotz was getting hundreds of requests on how to form leagues at the local level from all over the United States . After just 10 years, Little League Baseball was on its way to becoming the present-day international organization (the first leagues outside the U.S. were established in Canada and the Panama Canal Zone in 1951) of nearly 200,000 teams in every U.S. state and more than 80 countries. Of course, since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Little League Baseball has been imitated ad infinitum over years, to the point where there are at least three other national organizations sponsoring youth (that is, age 12 and under) baseball – PONY League, the Youth Baseball Association, and USSSA. (There might well be more, those are just the ones I know of.)

Still, there's only one "Little League," the organization that now plays its World Series each year in South Williamsport on ESPN. One of the great charms of Little League, besides giving kids an organized venue to play a game on their scale, is that it gives parents and grandparents a chance to see said kids do just that. If you're so inclined, it also gives parents and grandparents a chance to coach said kids in said organized venue. I've been fortunate enough to do that (in both Little League and Youth Baseball) for my twin sons, Jared and Joseph, since 2005. It's been a blast… except that we live 850 miles from the head mahoff of the baseball Shifferts, the one-and-only John A. "Jack" Shiffert, Sr. As a result, he had never had a chance to see these two grandsons play… until May 27, 2010. (An aside… since my sister lives in Washington , DC , my dad has been able to see another grandson, the fabled Jackson "Jake" Cody Shiffert Fogarty, play on several occasions.) And thereby hangs a tale.

Since his son is running the show as the manager of the home team (White Oak Golden K) that evening, the game starts with my dad (suitably attired in a green White Oak jersey and cap) throwing out the first ball in that day's Major League (i.e., 12 and under) game of the West Coweta Little League. Actually, two first balls, one to each grandson. In honor of the occasion, Joseph makes his first-ever start on the mound. He's only pitched once previously, so the deal is that he'll pitch until he gets an out, then it's Jared's turn to get an out. All things considered, Joseph does remarkably well. The first batter, Chase Waldroup (a .500 hitter whose dad coaches the opposition – Bank of Coweta) loops a Texas League single over the first baseman's head. The next batter grounds a pitch to third base, where it's booted for an error. (Well, this IS Little League, after all. There will be 11 errors in the game.) Number three is the only lefty in the Bank of Coweta lineup, and a dead pull hitter. After a couple of passed balls (there are a lot of those, too) he grounds a pitch to our shortstop, the fabulous Jamal Walker, who is playing to the first base side of second base in a shift similar to the one that Ryan Howard sees. The 6-3 groundout drives in a run, but Joseph has his out, after having thrown eight of nine pitches for strikes – a remarkable accomplishment at this level.

In comes Jared, the proverbial left-handed relief pitcher. He's pitched in five games earlier in the season, and has shown improving control and speed. In other words, he throws harder than Joseph, but he's a little wilder. Jared walks the first hitter he faces, Jaq Walker – he's Jamal's brother and the best hitter on his team, so this isn't really a bad move. A passed ball, a wild pitch and an error on our catcher end up giving Bank of Coweta another unearned run, but Jared limits the damage by striking out Brandon Eason. Jamal then comes in to strike out the last hitter, and it's 3-0 after a half inning.

Little League Baseball isn't that much different from the major league version in that you want your first two hitters to be guys who can get on base. Since Joseph will end the season with a .303 batting average and a .566 on base average, and since Jared will end the season with a .296 batting average and a .596 on base average, they bat 1-2 tonight. Joseph, who is vertically challenged anyway, stands right on top of the plate and crouches down (as his father taught him some years ago). In other words, he's a difficult target for an 11-year old pitcher. He uncharacteristically swings at the first pitch and pops a ball into no-man's land, behind the pitcher and between the shortstop and second baseman. Since everyone is playing Joseph at well, Little League depth, because he has six bunt base hits on the year, it's an infield hit. Jared, who also typically takes a lot of pitches, is behind 0-2 when he's hit right in the middle of the back (on the first zero of his number – he's wearing 100 this year) with a pitch. A fielder's choice, two walks, a passed ball, and an error give White Oak three runs, and it's tied at three after one.

Jamal blows through the bottom of the Bank of Coweta order in the second, and, proving that, even on this level, top pitchers sometimes have off-days, White Oak drives Chase to cover in the bottom of the inning. This time Joseph gets on on an error by their first baseman. Jared, a switch hitter batting left-handed against the right-handed Chase, shoots a ball up the middle. Chase, the best fielder in the league, just tips it enough to deflect the ball into short left field, and Jared hustles it into a double. Jamal then comes up and bombs a ball to the base of the fence in center and easily circles the bases for a three-run homer. Then he goes back behind the dugout and gives the fist bump to Jared and Joseph's grandfather and grandmother. Jamal has class.

Chase, an intense competitor, is steamed. He nails Noah Bridges just above the knee with a pitch (Noah will have the stitches imprinted on his leg for the rest of the game), and gives up singles to Jack Murphy and Zach East and a walk to Thomas Murphy before his dad, Billy Waldroup, takes him out and brings in his ace, Brandon. However, Brandon walks Britteny Arnold and Jared, and boots a ground ball by Jamal, and White Oak has seven runs, invoking one of the Little League special rules – a team can score a maximum of seven runs in an inning.

Down 10-3, Bank of Coweta comes right back with five runs in the top of the third. Chase leads off with a line drive to center that he runs into a home run. The next five batters go single, double, single, ground out, triple, again proving that top pitchers (Jamal in this case) have off days. Add in a couple of errors and a passed ball, and it's 10-8. Brandon mows down three White Oak hitters in the bottom of the inning, and the game goes into what will be the last frame, the fourth. (Another special rule limits regular season games to 90 minutes.) A walk to Chase, an error, a single and a double by Jaq (he and Chase seemed to be in the middle of every key play in this game), a walk and a few passed balls, and Bank of Coweta has a 12-10 lead. Jamal finally strikes out the last two hitters.

The seven, eight and nine hitters are due up in the bottom of the fourth. Brandon blows away the seven hitter, bringing up little nine-year-old Thomas Murphy. He gets his third walk of the game (on a 3-2 pitch yet) and goes to second on a wild pitch while Brandon is trying to blow away the nine hitter, Britteny. (In the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that Thomas and Britteny have a collective zero hits on the year.) With Britteny still batting, Thomas heads for third on a short passed ball. Jaq tries to throw him out, the ball goes into left field, and it's a 12-11 game. Britteny, also on a 3-2 pitch, walks, bringing up Joseph for the fourth time. He walks on another 3-2 pitch, putting the tying run on second, the winning run on first.

Jared, who's already been on base all three times, is next. He doesn't walk on a 3-2 pitch. Brandon 's first pitch is in the dirt, and Britteny, a fast runner, takes off for third. Her slide trips up the third baseman and Jaq's throw again goes down the left field line. Britteny jumps up and scores the tying run. Joseph, running hard all the way from first, circles the bases and easily scores the winning run on the same play, 13-12. Britteny, Jared, Joseph and their grandfather each get an inscribed game ball – another Little League custom.

Little League… you can't beat it.

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