By Peter Schwartz
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The year was 1939.
Major League Baseball crowned the Yankees as World Series champions for the fourth straight year. It was also the year that we said goodbye to Lou Gehrig, who told the world on the 4th of July that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
As it turns out, youngsters who loved to play the game were lucky in ’39 because that was the year that Little League baseball was organized. Seventy-five years later, Little League is celebrating its diamond anniversary.
The organization has affected millions of lives since its inception.
“The first thing that comes to mind is for how many millions of people that Little League is the first page or two of their lifetime scrapbook,” said Stephen D. Keener, President and CEO of Little League International. “In many cases, it’s their first introduction to playing a game outside of school and home. I think about how many lives this program has impacted.”
The idea of having boys playing in an organized league belonged to Carl E. Stotz, a lumberyard clerk in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the home of the Little League World Series. He was playing backyard baseball with his nephews when he decided to give those boys an opportunity to play in an organized league.
“What he really wanted to do was provide any kid that wanted to play an opportunity to do so and that’s still true today,” said Keener. “We haven’t lost that purpose.”
Stotz was able to garner support from parents and local businesses as he organized the league. There were three teams with 10 players each that first year. The first game was on June 6, 1939, when Lundy Lumber beat Lycoming Dairy 23-8. The other first-year team was Jumbo Pretzel.
The countdown is on toward June 6 of this year when Little League officially turns 75 years old. There are many different components to the anniversary celebration, but the key goal is continue to grow the program.
“By celebrating this anniversary and bringing awareness to the little league program, we’ll be able to reach more parents with kids who are potentially interested in playing Little League baseball,” said Keener. “We also wanted to be respectful of the history of the program, the founding of the program, how it got started and tell that story.”
The program has come a long way from that three-team start in 1939 with 30 players. There are now 2.7 million boys and girls playing Little League baseball in 81 countries.
That brings a big smile to the face of Little League’s biggest fan.
“What makes me smile even more is that even though the culture in many different societies has changed since 1939, the one thing that has remained consistent with little league is that it has been true to its original mission,” Keener said.
And that is to give the kids a chance to play baseball in an organized environment.
As part of the 75th anniversary celebration, the greater Williamsport community will celebrate the organizations accomplishments with the screening of the documentary “Little League: A History” on June 6.
Three days later, that documentary will air across the country on PBS.
Another integral portion of the celebration is the “Little League Big Legacy Project.” On June 6, a mosaic will be unveiled at littleleaguebiglegacy.com, the website dedicated to Little League’s 75th anniversary. The mosaic features photos from current and past members of the Little League program celebrating their favorite Little League moments.
“The idea behind it was to give current members of the little league program and past members of the little league program an opportunity to be a part of the 75th anniversary,” said Keener.
Speaking of past members, Little League baseball has a pretty impressive list of alumni. The fraternity includes the likes of major leaguers such as Derek Jeter, David Wright, Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt and Mike Trout to other notables like former President George W. Bush, Vice President Joe Biden, Chris Drury, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Bruce Springsteen, Adam Sandler and Kevin Costner.
Little League baseball has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. The Little League World Series has turned into a marquee event. There was a time when only the championship game was on television but now the tournament enjoys extension television coverage.
Community leagues have also sprouted elite teams and travel teams, but the basic element of the program remains the same.
“Little League is a community program in a neighborhood town where any child that wants to play will not be turned away,” said Keener.
Another concern is that, at some levels, too much emphasis is placed on winning. I can tell you that I’ve see it first hand in the little league that my son plays in. The program, since its inception 75 years ago, is supposed to teach the kids how to play and give them the opportunity to play in an organized setting.
At the end of the day, it’s not about winning or losing.
“The little league experience is meant to be fun,” said Keener. “It’s about learning how to win but it’s also about learning how to lose. If you win all of the time, then you don’t know what it feels like to lose. I think losing a little league game is a good thing.”
Some parents and coaches just don’t get that and that’s unfortunate.
But that’s where the 75th anniversary celebration comes in. It’s a reminder about what Little League baseball is supposed to be about. I remember what it was like to put that uniform on and now my son is going through the same experience. Sure, it’s nice to win, but there’s something to be said about learning how to play the right way, making friends, and creating memories that will last a lifetime.
While a diamond is a girl’s best friend, a baseball diamond can make anybody smile.
Happy 75th anniversary to Little League baseball. Let’s hope this diamond lasts forever.
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