Kids of Summer


The Story of Little League Baseball

By Lance and Robin Van Auken

Penn State Press -- 243pp -- $35

In 1938, while playing a game of catch with his nephews in Williamsport, Pa., a clerk for Pure Oil Co. got the idea of creating a formal baseball league for kids. When play began the next year, there was only one field and a handful of boys decked out in baggy flannel uniforms. The energetic clerk, Carl Stotz, served as rules czar, groundskeeper, and frustrated fund-raiser, struggling for months to sign up even one sponsor. After a slew of refusals, he himself picked up the tab for the league's first equipment order: $3.67 plus 82 cents postage for a dozen baseballs and a catcher's mask.

That was the beginning of Little League Baseball. These days, Little League is played on 12,000 diamonds in 50 states and 103 foreign countries. The climax of each season is the Little League World Series in Williamsport, played before 40,000 spectators and broadcast on national TV. There are corporate sponsors ranging from American Honda to insurer CNA Financial and TV Guide and celebrity spectators from Kevin Costner to Carlton Fisk. Just how all this came about is recounted in the entertaining and at times surprising Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball, by husband-and-wife authors Lance and Robin Van Auken, the league's media-relations director and a writer for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, respectively.

The book serves up dozens of anecdotes from the league's history. Many stories are accompanied by photos from 62 seasons, including memorable action shots from the Little League World Series. Stotz never liked the Series hype, believing it detracted from the team-building and baseball skills being taught in local leagues. But the late-August spectacle has become Little League's main event, and it has been a springboard for superstar adolescents on their way to careers in the majors. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon, for instance, playing for Gary, Ind., knocked five home runs in five official at bats in the 1971 Series.

Little League has its warts, though, and Play Ball doesn't hide them. Although Lance Van Auken's day job may not incline him toward unvarnished objectivity, he makes a commendable effort to present both sides in a number of historical episodes. He tells how, in the mid-1950s, Stotz increasingly clashed with corporate board members over management of Little League Inc.--conflicts that ultimately resulted in the founder's exile. There were uglier problems. In 1955, Little League faced a showdown with segregationist members. South Carolina's 61 all-white Little Leagues refused to play in all-star tournaments with the state's only all-black league. Little League's central administration stood firm, and the white leagues resigned their charters.

Girls didn't get the same support. When Maria Pepe, 12, of Hoboken, N.J., tried to join her local team in 1972, Little League blocked her and continued the battle in court. Two years later, after losing a set of appeals, the league began admitting girls. Girls have now played in several Little League World Series.

Stotz, who died in 1992, probably would have approved. He even might have chipped in to buy the uniforms.

By Mark Hyman

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