When kids' baseball belonged to the kids

It was so different back in the 1920s when kids' baseball leagues were just beginning. The boys put together their own teams and worked out their problems by themselves. There was hardly any publicity. And while parents came to the games, they didn't intrude the way parents do today.

That's the way it was in my hometown back in 1927, when the town fathers of Urbana, Ill., a community of about 10,000, announced that they were laying out a baseball playing field and starting a league for youngsters the following summer. There would be a kid league for 12-year-olds and younger and a junior league for older kids, up to 16 years old.

Baseball was my life back then. I was always playing catch with a buddy or shagging flies in a nearby open field. We had pickup games in our neighborhood every summer day. From the boys who played in these games, it was easy to put together a team for the new league.

Actually, we put together two teams, one younger and one older. I was 12 and pitched on the kid- league team. But I also somehow made our junior- league team as an infielder. That was when I had those boyhood dreams of replacing Frankie Frisch as shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. That was before I found out that my dreams far exceeded my talent.

This brings me to Little Leaguer Danny Almonte, who has been drawing almost as much public attention lately as President Bush. First, he pitched that perfect game in championship play. Then we learned he was 14 instead of 12, and, therefore, all his team's victories had to be forfeited. The cheers quickly turned to some jeers, and - mostly - to sadness that a boy, with a birth certificate allegedly falsified by his father, should be involved in such deception.

It got me thinking about our final junior-league game when we, the Cubs, were playing the Wildcats for the championship. Our regular pitcher, who in later years played some minor league ball, had come up with a strained muscle, and it looked as though we'd lost our chance of winning.

Then my pal Ralph, who caught for our Cubs, and I decided to see if we could find another pitcher. We simply walked around town looking for somebody who just might fill the bill. And after a long search, we finally found a young fellow who showed promise - his name was Don Dixon - playing catch in a park far away from our neighborhood.

We watched him for a while. We couldn't believe it: a blazing fast ball and control. We couldn't understand how he hadn't already been signed up by some team. He said he'd been away most of the summer.

Anyway, Don joined our team (to replace an injured player was within our rules back then) and mowed down the Wildcats. They got two hits. And we won. But immediately afterward, the Wildcats lodged a protest with our recreation supervisor. They charged that this tall fellow who threw so hard had to be well over the legal age. Well, Don brought out his birth certificate, showing he was 16. And that was the end of that.

But consider our Don Dixon case. We boys worked it out with our league supervisor. No parents were involved. I'm sure I told my dad about it. But he didn't (like modern parents) come charging in to try to help out - or, more likely, take over.

Parents let kids be kids back in those days. I went on to play American Legion ball and, yes, our parents were at all our games as they would be today.

But they weren't so passionately involved. They didn't act, as they do today, as though they would live and die over whether their boy did well or his team won.

The truth is that we kids back then would have been embarrassed by parents who got so involved in our lives and what we were doing. But the most important fact is that parents back then were mature enough to let us kids work out our lives - at least when we were playing our games.

I'm sure they didn't plan it - but they left room for us kids to learn how to organize, come up with ideas, and deal with our problems.

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