Ever since Little League baseball erupted from Pennsylvania 10 years ago and spread all over the country, it has been the subject of hot debate—not of baseball as a sport, but of baseball as a social crucible for pre-teen-age boys and their parents. The controversy has bubbled up during a period in which we have poked into Johnny's soul as never before. In the junior hot-stove leagues it isn't Tinker to Evers to Chance any more, it's Gesell to Ilg to Ames. Readers of Auntie Mame will recall a situation in which the proprietor of a superprogressive school discovers the 11-year-old hero perusing a book. "Mame," he exclaims, "you let that child read?" The question put to the parents of Little League ballplayers by some of the most severe critics of the movement, with approximately the same degree of horror, is essentially, "You let that child play organized baseball at his age?"
It should be understood, from the outset, that Little League has never lacked influential support, nor has it failed to gain substantially in local league strength in each of the last 10 years. Professional baseball people are for it overwhelmingly. Baseball writers have given it much praise. Top industrial leaders have endorsed it. Former President Herbert Hoover has called it "one of the greatest stimulants of constructive joy in the world" and Dwight David Eisenhower has sent best wishes.
But the two basic arguments which strike at the roots of Little League pop up year after year: it puts too much competitive pressure on the children; it brings out the monster in too many parents and adult leaders.
These arguments can be heard across the country, and year by year they have grown in intensity. The substance of the case against Little League was summed up not long ago by Guy Bushby, an official of the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission. "Practically all the psychologists and child welfare specialists," he said, "plus the California Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation and all persons dealing with child care feel that the type of intensive competition fostered by Little League baseball is not to the best interests of the child 12 years old and under."
August 25, 1957
The key words in Bushby's summation of charges are "intensive competition." How much competition is too much? There is a considerable difference of opinion among educators and child specialists on the matter. In an article entitled, "Little League Baseball Can Hurt Your Boy" (Look, Aug. 11, 1953), Charles A. Bucher, professor of education at New York University, said: "The drive to win is traditional in America and must be preserved. But a boy will absorb that lesson soon enough in high school. In his grammar school years it is more important that his recreation be guided toward other objectives: the fun of playing rather than winning; the child rather than the game; the many rather than the few; informal activity rather than the formal; the development of skills in many activities rather than specialization."
Dr. George Maksim, chairman of the school health committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says: "Undue pressures from highly organized programs at this age are undesirable and may be detrimental." But he also says, "There's nothing wrong with Little League baseball as long as it is confined to local competition and as long as exploitation and commercialism are avoided. Competition is a part of the growing child that should be recognized, accepted and directed."
As played in the major leagues, baseball is, of course, fiercely competitive. This has its effect on Little League play; chiefly on the adults concerned but sometimes, by reflection, on the youngsters, too. "Nice guys finish last" is one of the imperishable slogans of the big time. Questioning the umpire's call on a close play is an automatic reaction. Many fans consider it part of their birthright to be able to yell, when so moved: "Ya stink, ya bum, ya," or one of the infinite variations on that familiar theme.
Little League officials maintain they are well aware of the dangers implicit in this freedom to question higher authority. The program strives to teach its young players respect for authority, team play, sportsmanship, grace in victory and defeat; it preaches moderation and understanding to their parents. But there is no denying that, on the local level, these ideals are not always realized. Item: in Allentown, Pa. not long ago, the adult manager of a non-Little League team induced two Little Leaguers to jump their teams and join his by offering free taxi rides, sightseeing trips to New York and flashy team jackets.
This is the kind of isolated situation which tempts observers on the sidelines to condemn junior baseball out of hand. Actually, that is unfair. Such excesses are not prevalent; where they do occur, they are generally due to the difficulty—one which will always plague Little League—of reserving one set of attitudes for the big leagues and another for junior baseball. The source of the most widespread criticism concerning the hazards of competition is that Little Leaguers frequently cry after losing an important game or committing an error on the field. Defenders of Little League invariably reply that these tears vanish quickly and that it is difficult to distinguish between winners and losers a few hours after the game. A child's interest span is shorter than an adult's; adults who become deeply involved emotionally over Little League situations tend to judge the children by their own adult reactions.
A test for emotions
Scientific studies to determine the effects of competitive pressure have given the league a more concrete basis for answering critics. At the University of California, Dr. Elvera Skubic conducted a study of 206 boys. Of these, 75 were Little Leaguers, 51 were members of Middle League teams (aged 12 to 15) and 80 were nonplayers. A skin galvanometer was used to determine the extent of emotional excitement in certain situations. All the boys were tested in softball physical education classes; and the league players in their baseball games as well. Questionnaires were sent out to boys, to their parents and their teachers for additional information.
Dr. Skubic concluded that league players tended to show "less emotionality at rest" than nonplayers, no greater emotion in anticipation of league games than before physical education classes, more emotion after winning a game than after losing a game and no greater emotion over championship games than regular season games. "At most ages," Dr. Skubic reported, "boys showed more skin response after physical education competition than they did after league competition." In addition, the study revealed that parents whose sons played on Little League or Middle League teams gave almost unanimous approval to the program and that boys chosen for team play were physically and emotionally more mature than nonplayers. "It appears," Dr. Skubic said, "that the boys who display the best baseball techniques, play the most intelligent game, have emotional stability and get along best in a group are the ones who are chosen to play competitive baseball."
While markedly favorable to Little League in general, the Skubic report pointed out that a substantial minority of the players failed to eat normal-sized meals after games and that the sleep of a few players was disturbed. Dr. Skubic was concerned that a number of players were distressed over their inability to break into the lineup as often as they desired and that a sizable number of finger and arm injuries occurred among Little Leaguers. Most of these injuries, however, were minor cuts, bruises and sprains.
So far, we have explored the matter of competition primarily on the local, nontournament level. As competitive pressures increase through each stage of the playoffs leading to the Little League World Series, so does the intensity of anti-Little League feeling. With the 1957 World Series now under way at Williamsport, Pa., the outcry is at its annual zenith. This climactic tournament is the most important single problem of Little League, especially so since a large share of the criticism of it comes from within the league. As explained last week, national officials of the league consider the World Series necessary, and there is no reason to believe they will drop it in the foreseeable future. But the problem remains, in spite of the fact that local leagues may choose not to take part in the Series playoffs.
In 1953, Robert A. Young, a member of the national board and a regional director, resigned, largely because of the tournament issue. Now a Lutheran minister in New Castle, Ind., Pastor Young continues to oppose the World Series idea. A current board member, Dr. Arthur A. Esslinger, who is dean of the School of Health and Physical Education at the University of Oregon, is an enthusiastic supporter of Little League play at the local level but likewise a serious opponent of the playoffs.
"The tournament was invaluable in the early days," Dr. Esslinger says. "It promoted the program on a nationwide basis and caused it to spread. But in my judgment this value is no longer needed. The tournament has outlived its usefulness.
"First of all, it harms local play. To get ready for the tournament structure, a manager must start four or five weeks before the end of local play. When boys are picked for the all-star team [the local league entry], it hurts the rest of the boys. It results in unplayed and postponed games, and the genius of Little League baseball is in its concept of widespread play at the local level.
"The goal of becoming national champion is so great and so valuable that it causes some adults to overemphasize the program. Managers can make hard work of it with long, grim hours of practice that take the joy out of it for the kids."
Disruption of local play and the disproportionate amount of attention paid to the all-stars—these are the enduring complaints. Whether the Series harms the boys is another matter. Neither Pastor Young nor Dr. Esslinger feels that the boys who go on to Williamsport tournaments are adversely affected.
"I have seen and been thrilled by the qualities of sportsmanship and idealism displayed by the boys at Williamsport," says Dr. Esslinger.
What does Williamsport have to say on the junior World Series issue? Creighton Hale, assistant to the president and director of research for Little League, is the person best qualified to answer. Dr. Hale is a young, sandy-haired physiologist who acquired four sports letters and a Ph.D. in his collegiate days. Since he joined the Little League staff in 1955 he has assembled an impressive portfolio of material concerning the physical and emotional effects of Little League baseball on the players. His persuasiveness and obvious sincerity have found more than one convert to Little League among the disaffected.
In 1955 Dr. Hale determined that the majority of Little League World Series players that year were adolescent, rather than preadolescent. At that time there was one 10-year-old in the Series, as well as 11- and 12-year-olds; nowadays only 11s and 12s may play.
"I was amazed," Dr. Hale said, "at the early maturity of these boys. The average age for adolescence in this country is about 15. In trying to evaluate why these boys were so mature, I began analyzing the growth and development patterns of children in the United States as far back as I could find reliable data. I found that the average 12-year-old boy today is six inches taller and 31 pounds heavier than the 12-year-old of 1877. I also determined that boys today mature two years earlier than did boys 20 years ago. The 12-year-old today is as large as the 14-year-old was 20 years ago. The implication of this changing growth pattern is this: the seventh and eighth graders today are as mature as the ninth and 10th graders of 20 years ago. People who favored athletic competition for ninth and 10th graders 20 years ago certainly have no justifiable reason for criticizing competition for children who are now in the seventh and eighth grades."
On-the-spot tests by Dr. Hale at World Series games have convinced him that the winning and losing of those highly publicized matches produce no serious emotional disturbance among the players then and there. Long-range studies to gauge possible aftereffects are under way.
Another aspect of the controversy, whether Little League occupies too much of a player's time, was investigated by the recreation department of Fresno, Calif. Questionnaires were mailed to the parents or guardians of the boys who played in the 1952 Series. The returns contradicted the rather widely held assumption that Little League unduly narrows a child's activities. The average boy participated in three other sports; he had, statistically speaking, 3.84 hobbies. The majority of parents replied that if they had it to do over again they would want their sons to compete. A similar study by Dr. Emery Seymour brought an identical response.
What about adults?
Thus we come to the second basic issue in the Little League problem: how have the adults involved—the parents and their representatives on the playing fields, the managers—lived up to their responsibilities?
There are several schools of thought on parents in Little League. There is the frantic element which just prays that the parents will quietly go away; the hopeful element which puts its trust in the belief that they can be educated ; and the matter-of-fact element which concedes that some parents are bad for their children, Little League or not, and believes that the good vastly outnumber the bad.
"I liked the kids," said Will Fowler, upon quitting as manager of the Encino Tigers of the San Fernando Valley Little League, "but I couldn't take parents. The fathers go out to win at all costs, not the kids. I've seen kids go home crying and not talking to their parents. That's not natural for a 12-year-old. I've seen one kid climb up in a walnut tree after a game and sit there brooding half the night. He just felt he was a misfit, alone in the world.
"What happens is that a parent whose kid comes home crying or upset usually goes out to the next game with blood in his eye. They never help out and maybe only come out once in every four games, but if their kid doesn't play they raise a stink. Nine chances out of 10, they are guys who were no good at baseball themselves and they want to justify themselves or get rid of their frustrations through their kids. Once a father threw insults and then clods of dirt and paper at a manager who did not play his son. The manager finally took up a bat and chased the father through the fence gate and nearly clobbered him. Once a mother actually pummeled me."
Similar testimony can be had for the asking wherever Little League exists. Yet it isn't all that bad.
"About once a year," says Arthur L. Fleshman, who has been active in a suburban league near Albany, N.Y. for four years, "we have trouble with parents. An individual parent might get out of hand now and then by hollering at his kid from the stands. We face up to it and tell him to keep his mouth shut. After that there isn't any more trouble."
Cheers from a mother
"As the mother of a boy who played in Little League," says Mrs. Mary E. Junkins of Morgantown, W. Va., "I want to shout three cheers for the league. The boys are learning good conduct, sportsmanship and how to handle themselves, and they are building their lives on a constructive basis. I think if some of us adults had some of the training these boys are getting there would be no red-faced fathers calling names at the games."
Acutely aware of The Great Parent Problem, national officials at Williamsport have earmarked funds in the new $1 million Little League Foundation for an extensive program in adult leadership training and child psychology. Meanwhile, until the foundation becomes a going concern, they encourage the growth of local clinics for adults, like the well-established one at Mineola, N.Y.
These officials emphasize that one of the ideals of Little League is to stimulate the development of an intimate relationship between son and parents—to interest the parents, especially fathers, who "don't have enough time" to get to know their sons. In practice, they contend, this greatly overbalances the harm done by the minority of thoughtless or self-seeking parents.
Of nearly as much concern as the parents are the managers. They are not required to have professional training either in child care or baseball, a fact that has started the tongue of many a physical education specialist. Some managers, to be sure, have sent their teams out to win at any cost; some have boggled over letting the least talented players have a reasonable chance to play. Where the local league directors insist upon high standards of sportsmanship among the managers, the problem is minimized.
"The quality of the people in our league," says Alex T. Franz Jr. of Wilmette, Ill., "is very high. The thing is handled very, very carefully." Boyd Simmons, a Little League district director and veteran newspaperman, speaks up from Detroit: "All those adults participating are fathers and certainly qualified to handle their youngsters at play if they are qualified to handle them at home. Maybe some of them don't know baseball, but they sure know kids. These are the same adults who are running the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, PTA and service clubs in the community, and those groups are thriving under their leadership."
Aside from the paramount problems of competition and the attitudes and qualifications of adults, the Little League undergoes considerable sniping from time to time on other questions. Foremost among these is what the political parties would call the matter of "equal time." Virtually every parent wants his son to be able to play as often and as long as the next boy. In practice this almost never works out, but in many local areas the adult leaders have adopted rules assuring every eligible team member an opportunity to play at least part of every game. For example, in Hamtramck, Mich. a really highly developed program enables every Little Leaguer to participate in 40 games on the average each summer. The all-star team for tournament playoffs is picked in the third week of July; the rest of the players carry on until Labor Day. Hamtramck wisely has a "farm" league setup for boys who fail to make the regular teams. Leagues which fail to satisfy the demand for playing time soon encounter stormy weather. Mutinous parents can be extremely persuasive.
Little League is occasionally criticized from the standpoint of the child's health and safety. "Children 12 years of age and under," says the American Academy of Pediatrics, "are particularly susceptible to bone and joint injury because the growing ends of the long bones have not yet calcified and because they do not possess the protection of adult musculature." The Academy condemns body-contact sports for preteen-agers but condones baseball, with the rider that highly competitive tendencies should be guarded against. In addition there have been medical warnings against carrying children's athletic competition "past the stage of healthful fatigue to harmful exhaustion." Physicians invariably recommend a physical examination for children entering athletic pursuits. The Little League recommends such a thoroughgoing examination for all players at the start of each season.
Warnings against the evils of commercialism are sounded in virtually every tract on the subject of children's athletics. The Little League frankly invites sponsorship of local leagues and does not exclude businessmen, but cautions local leaders to be on guard. A sponsor may have the name of his business on the team uniforms. So far as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has been able to determine in this nationwide survey, commercial sponsorship has been the least of Little League's troubles.
Racial segregation has caused some alarms and much soul-searching in Little League. Except for a general recommendation that no boy be denied a chance to play because of color, the national officials stay out of the controversy, maintaining that it is not their business to attempt to change broad social customs. South Carolina dropped out of the league in 1955 over the selection of a Negro team for tournament playoffs, but continued to carry on its local activity without national franchise. The scene elsewhere in the South has been generally calm. Virtually all southern teams are either all white or all Negro.
Occasionally a local league drops out of the national structure over some disagreement on policy. Those in the Seattle-King County area of Washington split off in 1954 and adopted the name Li'l League. Seattle leaders objected to Williamsport's rulings on player selection, methods of local organization, the drawing of geographical boundary lines and exhibition games. Little League officials, incidentally, are not happy about the situation and are considering legal action to force a change of name. The Fresno, Calif. leagues seceded over methods of organization and boundaries and formed the Spartan League. Instead of establishing each of its six leagues as an entity, responsible only to Williamsport, as national rules required, Fresno organized a central board for direction of the citywide program. Pittsburgh's suburban Mount Lebanon township supports a vigorous offshoot (49 teams in the Little League age bracket) on a "no-star-everyone-plays" basis. Every boy who wants to play is put on a team; every boy must play in at least two innings of each game.
By and large, however, the local leagues appear to be happy with the national affiliation and satisfied with home-town results.
"I think Little League is one of the best things that ever happened," says Patrolman John Parker, a manager in Wilmette's league. "In season we have less trouble with kids as far as breaking street lights and the rest goes. We teach not only baseball, but being good to your fellow man." From Hamtramck's Midge Wysocki, director of a municipal recreation program which incorporates Little League: "In our four years of Little League activity our juvenile officers have never picked up a player for any reason. That means a lot in an industrial community such as ours." The Parkdale district of Toronto, a section which used to breed juvenile delinquents, is no longer breeding them; city officials say Little League is setting potential lawbreakers straight.
A significant convert
One of Little League's most significant converts is Dr. Elmon Vernier, director of physical education for the public schools of Baltimore, now state public relations director for Little League as well. Once of the opinion that Little League was a commercial venture of U.S. Rubber to capitalize on the interest in baseball among American youth, Dr. Vernier came away from a meeting with league officials "much impressed by their leadership qualities and by the strong indication that sport, not commercialism, was the basis of the league." That was in 1954; but when he attended the first Little League congress, in 1956, Dr. Vernier still had misgivings.
"What persuaded me, finally," he says, "was the type of people I met and the stands they took on important issues. I particularly remember a motor cop from New Jersey, a bridge foreman from Maryland, a banker from Texas and a manufacturer from Ohio. These people wanted to do the same things that we physical education people wanted, and I'm not sure we always do it better than they do."
We have heard the case against Little League; we have heard the witnesses in its defense. Let us summarize our findings and deliver a verdict.
•As a participant sport for youngsters, Little League has unquestionably done great good. It has lured small boys in large numbers away from the omnipresent TV set, brought them out to the ball field, and has thus contributed positively to the growing physical fitness problem among our youth.
•As a source of future baseball players Little League has done much to insure the lasting quality of our national game.
•On the question of competitive pressure for youngsters who might be harmed by too intensive play, Little League would seem to have a good case for a plea of "not guilty." We have seen that, in practice, competitive pressure seems to be no worse than in comparable sports engaged in by children of the same age; that the effects of intensive play, if any, are usually temporary and that Little League officialdom is aware of the danger and seeks to guard against it.
•On the issue of the Little League World Series we have seen that the junior World Series tournament can seriously disrupt local play and that, of all forms of Little League play, it is most likely to lead to excesses of competitive intensity. The World Series would seem, on balance, to be of doubtful value.
•On the issue of adult overemphasis and interference with Little League play, we have seen that parents and managers, in too many instances, permit themselves to be carried away by misguided ambition and a competitive spirit which is not in keeping with Little League principles and which can seriously hinder or harm their children's enjoyment of baseball and warp their judgment of the game. Clearly, a serious word of warning to the adults concerned—and in particular to over-zealous parents—is in order. The importance of common sense, understanding and fair play on the part of parents and managers cannot be overemphasized.
•In conclusion, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S survey clearly indicates that Little League, taken as a whole, is a praiseworthy undertaking, and one that is here to stay. A splendid program in theory, it can, in execution, form a magnificent combination of boyhood opportunity, adult satisfaction and community spirit. Undoubtedly, it will flourish in the future—as it deserves to.