It was such a pleasant day in April 1960 in Fort Wayne, Ind., that 80-year-old Dale McMillen decided to take a couple of hours off from running one of the nation's largest soybean processing businesses and watch a Little League game or two. As he pulled up to McMillen Park (which he had donated to the city in 1936) in his chauffeur-driven Cadillac, Mr. Mac, as he was known around town, was pleased to see that things were already under way. Unfortunately, he quickly discovered that they were not the kinds of things he wanted to see.
McMillen was aghast as a succession of dejected young figures trudged past his car. On the periphery of this sad parade, he saw a boy on crutches. It was Tom Kelly, the paperboy in McMillen's neighborhood. Despite the damage polio had done to his legs, Kelly tossed copies of the Journal Gazette with a grin that McMillen admired. Apparently, however, throwing baseballs didn't have the same effect on the lad. He was leaving the playing field in tears because, like 80% of the boys who tried out for the Fort Wayne Little League, Kelly had been cut.
McMillen returned to his office enraged. He believed that everyone, especially children, deserved an opportunity to succeed. So by the following spring he had set the wheels in motion for the establishment of a new youth league for Fort Wayne. He had even chosen a motto for his league: "Everybody makes the team." And in the 27 years since McMillen started the Wildcat Baseball League, more than 125,000 Fort Wayne area youngsters have done just that. Today 4,000 participants, boys and girls ranging in age from 7 to 15½, are convinced that Wildcat baseball is one of the best things about Fort Wayne.
One of them is 10-year-old Osiris Palumbo, who had never played baseball before he came out for Wildcat last year. Says Lance Hershberger, a Wildcat coach, "At first Osiris didn't know which hand to throw with. When it was his turn to hit, the other kids on the team would whisper, 'Oh, no! Osiris is up.' So I said, 'Look, folks, if I can hear you, Osiris can, too. You guys should be helping him out instead of making fun of him.' Now every time Osiris does something, they cheer. The first time he got on base—with a walk—he ran toward rightfield instead of second when the next batter got a hit. So we taught him to run the bases. When he scored his first run, his teammates all showed him how to give a high five."
April 3, 1988
Another Wildcatter is pitcher Devon Smith, who was pitching a no-hitter when a girl, whose bat had yet to touch the ball, came up. Coach Paul Kennell suggested to Smith that he take something off his pitches, and when the girl connected for a single, nobody was happier than Devon.
In most youth baseball leagues, the coach is a father who arrives at games straight from work, still wearing a tie, and he probably knows more about double-digit inflation than about the double cutoff. Not only are coaches' instructional credentials thin, but with trophies and trips going to the league leaders at the end of the season, there is an emphasis on winning. With league standings at stake, the accomplished athletes get a lot more playing time than those who merely show potential and, as McMillen had seen firsthand, many youngsters end up being simply left out.
Mr. Mac was convinced that for his league to work, he would need superior instructors. So instead of relying on ill-qualified—if well-meaning—dads, he decided to hire trained coaches. By offering reasonable wages for summer work ($300 to $1,000 for the eight-week program back in 1961, $900 to $2,800 today), McMillen sought to create a true instructional league.
Mr. Mac died in 1971, but the endowment that he left the league continues to provide Fort Wayne youngsters with outstanding coaching. The Wildcat League's screening process is rigorous. An applicant who says things in the interview like, "Ideally every team in this league should finish the season 8-8," is far more likely to get a job than one who quotes Lee Iacocca to show that he is capable of whipping a team into a pennant-drive frenzy.
Every child who signs up for Wildcat baseball is assigned to a team with 11 to 15 other youngsters who are roughly the same age. The schedule consists of two two-hour games and one two-hour practice per week. All games and practices are held during the day, which means that Wildcatters can also play Little League or Babe Ruth baseball in the evenings if they choose—and are chosen.
Wildcatters pay for their own uniforms—matching T-shirts and caps—by either tapping their piggy banks or helping their coaches chalk and groom the diamond. Mr. Mac thought it important that the players should invest something in their league while learning a little bit about earning money.
Wildcat may be a T-shirt league, but it is a first-class operation. Back in 1961, McMillen got former Brooklyn Dodger Carl Erskine, a native of nearby Anderson, Ind., involved in Wildcat baseball. Erskine was the one who advised McMillen to emphasize teaching the fundamentals in his league over winning championships. The Wildcat League has never lost sight of that admonition. Each practice during the eight-week season is devoted to teaching a single skill, such as fielding grounders or laying down bunts.
Coaches are not assigned to individual teams, and they generally work games and practices in pairs. While one coach remains near the bench, offering advice to hitters, minding the score book and keeping other players off the backstop, the other, assuming a position behind the mound, umpires and assists the base runners and the defense. Either coach can halt the action for what the league calls The Teachable Moment.
If, for example, a ball trickles through the first baseman's legs, a coach is likely to stop the game and briefly explain the proper way to field a grounder. The coach may even hit a few to the first sacker to help restore confidence. Because everybody plays—and plays everywhere—The Teachable Moment draws interested eyes and ears rather than bored sighs and scowls.
Another thing that separates Wildcat from Little League is that parents are not encouraged to attend games or practices. "We don't want any pressure here—we just want the kids to have fun," says league president John Grantham, who is a high school administrator, assistant athletic director and former coach. "We say to the parents. 'You stay away, and we guarantee you a happy son or daughter when he or she leaves two hours later.' "
Parents don't seem to mind being left out. Says Eugene White, a high school principal who spent seven years as a Wildcat coach and had a son in the league, "It's a great program, and you won't believe the satisfaction you get when you open up a boy's world by teaching him to hit a baseball."
The league generates enviable enthusiasm among its alumni. Some, like Hershberger, a former college player who admits he couldn't play a lick as an eight-year-old, become Wildcat instructors. Others are outspoken fans. Says city councilman Mark Giaquinta, "When I was an eight-year-old, Little League could be ruthless. If you were a goat, you heard about it for weeks. In Wildcat everybody plays, so if someone strikes out, he strikes out. It's no big deal, so long as he is trying his best."
Erskine, now a bank president in Anderson, still holds admiration for Mr. Mac's foresight. "I've never seen anything comparable to Wildcat baseball," says Erskine. "I think the community is so aware of the good Wildcat has done that the city would support it even if for some reason the trust vanished. I run into successful people all over the country who've been Wildcatters, and their affection for the program is amazing. You know, if I had to put up the photographs of the three people I've most respected in my life, they'd be Branch Rickey, Norman Vincent Peale and Dale McMillen."
Wildcat's emphasis on teaching skills has paid off. Last summer a Little League All-Star team from Fort Wayne was invited to a tournament in Milwaukee. The team was made up of about 50% Wildcat alumni. Last season four high school teams tied for the Fort Wayne city championship. Nearly three quarters of the players on those squads were former Wildcatters.
Still, in Wildcat baseball, fun takes priority over winning titles or developing future stars. At the season-ending awards ceremony, the trophies given out for perfect attendance are the same size as those given to members of first-place teams. Mr. Mac wouldn't have had it any other way.