The average 12-year-old may not realize it, but many of the
trappings that make it good to be a kid are the result of
Pennsylvania ingenuity. Soda pop was first bottled in
Philadelphia in 1809. The first nickelodeon, the precursor to the
modern cineplex, opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. The Philly-based
Fleer Corporation made the first batch of bubble gum in 1928.
Such pleasures may sound impossibly Rockwellian, but even in the
Internet age they have staying power. The same is true of another
of Pennsylvania's kid-friendly creations, the Little League World
Series, which last
Friday kicked off its annual 10-day run in Williamsport. In 1938
Carl Stotz, a clerk at an oil company, had a brainstorm while
playing catch with his two baseball-mad nephews in the backyard
of his Williamsport home. In a scene that sounds as though it
were ripped off the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, Stotz
asked the boys, "How would you like to play on a regular team,
with uniforms and a new ball for every game?" The following
summer he built a miniature diamond in Memorial Park, and Little
League was born.
Stotz's brainchild has evolved into the largest youth sports
program in the world, with 2.7 million participants from age five
to 18 in 105 countries. In 1947 Stotz convened the first Little
League National Tournament, a 12-team event that invited only one
squad from beyond central Pennsylvania, the Hammonton (N.J.)
All-Stars. Christened the Little League World Series two years
later, the tournament is now little in name only. It is one of
the jewels of the sports calendar, a mega-event with 16 teams
(eight regional qualifiers from the U.S. plus eight international
champions) and voluminous television and media coverage.
For 10 days every August, Williamsport bustles with activity.
Approximately 70,000 visitors flock to the Little League complex
on Route 15, just over the river from the park where Stotz's
original field still sits. "When people think of Pennsylvania,
they probably think of the Philadelphia Eagles or the Pittsburgh
Philharmonic," says Williamsport mayor Michael Rafferty. "But
there aren't many other things in the state that draw this kind
of international focus on an annual basis. It's like a
August 24, 2003
Like the Olympics, Little League has struggled to preserve its
integrity. Watching oversized 11-and 12-year-olds, particularly
pitchers, dominate play raises eyebrows of opponents and
spectators alike, and embarrassing revelations in recent years
have given credence to some of the suspicions. (In 2001, SI broke
the story that overpowering pitcher Danny Almonte of the Bronx
team was already 14, two years older than Little League World
Series rules allow.) This year Little League tightened its rules,
requiring that every player's birth certificate and proof of
residence be on file in Williamsport during the tournament.
The corporate veneer surrounding the event is inescapable. All
but five of the 32 games in the 2003 tournament are scheduled to
be televised. Many wonder if playing this weekend's U.S. finals
and World Series championship games, which carry into prime time
on ABC--not to mention the constant tracking of pitch counts on
ESPN broadcasts earlier in the event--takes away from what is
supposed to be a child's game. "People say TV has diluted the
Norman Rockwell feel of this event," says Stephen Keener, 46, who
has been the Little League president and CEO since 1998. "I doubt
if any of these kids know who Norman Rockwell is. This is the
world they live in. They've been saturated with TV coverage of
every aspect of life. It's no big deal to them."
The experience TV viewers don't get, however, is the key to the
series' popularity among participants, their families and
Williamsport residents. A feel-good, everyone's-a-winner vibe
permeates the event. Each player gets a medal and marches in the
Parade of Champions before the tournament begins; there is no
trophy ceremony for the winner. The series is also among the
country's most fan-friendly sporting events. Admission to games
is free. The complex, which includes Howard J. Lamade and
Volunteer stadiums, plus several practice fields, is neatly
manicured and has ample parking and well-priced concessions. A
$10 bill, for example, will get you four hot dogs, four sodas and
a couple of bucks change. Try that at a major league park.
"Everything about this screams Americana," says Lance Van Auken,
Little League's media relations director. "It's an aspect we have
no trouble promoting."
Then there's the cultural cross-pollination that takes place in
International Grove, the dormitories and recreational facilities
where the players bunk for the tournament. This year the team
from Richmond, Texas, is sharing bathroom and common space with
Asia champion Japan. "I learned a word for hello," Richmond's
Jimmy Michalek said last Saturday. "But I'm not sure if it's
Chinese or Japanese."
Stotz would have approved of the event's globalization, but its
evolution as an advertising vehicle led to his disassociation
from Little League half a century ago. In 1948 Stotz reluctantly
brought on the series' first national sponsor: U.S. Rubber, the
parent company of a popular sneaker brand, paid $5,000 to have
the event called the Keds National Little League Tournament. Over
the next few years Stotz fretted that Little League was becoming
little more than a commercial enterprise and drifting from its
core values of volunteerism, teaching and baseball.
In 1955, after years of bickering with the board of directors
over sponsorships and other matters, Stotz was ousted in a court
battle. He never attended another Little League World Series and
instead organized a competing youth baseball program called
Original League, which debuted in 1955 and is still active, at
Memorial Park. The schism between the organization and its
founding father lingered through 1992, when Stotz died, his name
conspicuously absent from official Little League publications and
displays at the Williamsport complex.
But in recent years Little League has taken steps to mend the
rift with Stotz's family and supporters. In part to stimulate the
raising of $20 million for the construction of the 4,000-seat
Volunteer Stadium, which opened in 2001 and enabled the
tournament to expand from eight to 16 teams, Little League acted
to heal old wounds by honoring Stotz with a granite memorial
outside Volunteer Stadium. In addition, Little League restored
his name to its publications, acknowledging Stotz as the
Little League also promotes the Original League field on the
other side of the river as the birthplace of youth baseball.
"Team uncles," the volunteer hosts who serve as player guides and
chaperones during the tournament, sometimes take series
participants there for a tour on off days. "Since Keener came on,
there's been a change," says Al Yearick, 75, a catcher in Stotz's
first league in 1939. "He wasn't born when the rift happened.
He's leading them in a direction that's more in line with what
This year the European champion, a team from Moscow that is
representing the region for the third year in a row, arrived in
Williamsport two weeks before the tournament began. By the eve of
the team's opening game last Saturday, the Russian manager,
Vladimir Eltchaninov, was dealing with a bunch of restless kids.
"They are anxious to play games," said Eltchaninov. (Russia
played well but lost to Mexico 2-1.) Twelve-year-old pitcher
Kiril Starodubov explained, however, that the team members'
desire to play had little to do with the quest for Moscow's first
series victory. "We want ice cream," he said through an
interpreter. "There is free ice cream in the dining hall, but our
coaches say we cannot have any until all our games are finished."
In Williamsport, the kids know what's important.
For more about sports in Pennsylvania and the other 49 states,
go to si.com/50.
"There aren't many things in the state that draw this kind of
international focus," says Rafferty, Williamsport's mayor. "It's
like a mini-Olympics."