Little League's new at bat

The world's biggest youth sports program has faced lawsuits and lagging interest in some areas. But it's on the White House lawn, too.

In bringing Little League baseball to the White House lawn, George W. Bush has helped repolish one of America's most famous and far-reaching sports institutions.

The monthly games have been one grand scrapbook moment, and a great showcase for an organization that has experienced its share of trials and tribulations.

Many of these are chronicled by Lance Van Auken, who, with his wife, Robin, has authored the first comprehensive Little League history: "Play Ball! The Story of Little League Baseball."

Mr. Van Auken calls Little League, which now includes softball and has participants in 105 countries, the world's largest youth sports program.

The White House games are clearly an opportunity to show Little League in a positive light, and none too soon, judging from declining interest in playing the game. Participation by children in baseball has fallen off 20 percent since 1997, according to statistics from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

But even though baseball participation, there's actually a resurgence among T-ball players, the youngest age level. And Little League is looking to grow in at least two geographical areas in the next decade: America's inner cities and Eastern Europe. The first is the focus of a new urban initiative, and the second is the beneficiary of the westernization of former Soviet satellites and the acceptance of baseball as an Olympic medal sport. "To play in the Olympics, you've got to start kids out young," Mr. Van Auken observes.

In some ways, Little Leaguers in the United States have been overshadowed by players overseas. Since 1976, few US teams have broken through to win the World Series, although greater parity has resulted since Taiwan decided to drop out of Little League in 1997.

Beyond the games on the White House lawn, Little League is expecting to get a publicity boost from a new Hollywood movie, "Mickey," starring Harry Connick Jr., being filmed this summer in Williamsport, Pa., for release next year.

Given that 35 million youths (aged 5-18 years old) have played Little League since it was founded in Williamsport in 1939, Van Auken eagerly signed on with Pennsylvania State University Press when it decided to write a book about Little League, as part of its Pennsylvania history series.

Van Auken, in his 19th year as a volunteer umpire, has been media relations and communications director at the Little League's Williamsport headquarters since 1996. His wife is a writer and editor at the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Their son, a former Little Leaguer, is a West Point cadet.

The Van Aukens' book is a straightforward account of a mountain of facts, including those describing the organization's rocky times. Foremost among these are its split with Little League founder Carl Stotz and lawsuits involving gender-related issues. Speaking by telephone, Van Auken said Little League has come full circle, meaning that it has had to go the extra mile to serve a minority of boys by setting up boys-only softball leagues.

This is the first year that Little League has offered boys-only softball; there are about 100 teams around the US. But planned championship games for three divisions of boys' softball in Clearwater, Fla., have been cancelled due to lack of interest.

Lawsuits let in the girls

During the early 1970s, lawsuits were brought in 20 states on behalf of girls eager to play baseball. Little League's argument was that the game was too physical for girls and that the organization's federal charter, granted by Congress in 1964, called for Little League to administer a program "for the betterment of boys."

"In most cases," Van Auken says, "Little League won those lawsuits, but it lost spectacularly in one case in New Jersey and that kind of brought the whole [boys-only] thing down."

Little League thereupon made its baseball leagues coed, while creating a softball division designed to accommodate most young girls.

The softball division was originally for girls only, but after court challenges, softball, too, was made coed, five years ago. Last year, for the first time, a coed softball team made it to the World Series for 14-to-16-year-olds in Kalamazoo, Mich.

"The team from Arizona had five very athletic boys on it," Van Auken says. "The team didn't crush everybody, but they crushed some teams."

In the finals, a squad from the Philippines refused to play the Arizona team because of its strong lineup - an ironic twist, given that a 1992 Philippine team was stripped of its Little League baseball title because it used ineligible players. As a result, the Arizona team won by forfeit, a situation that Little League wants to avoid in the future.

Little League engages about 3 million players each year, including 2.6 million in baseball, yet it began simply when Mr. Stotz, an oil company clerk with two baseball-loving nephews, decided to create an opportunity for youths to play on regular teams with uniforms and a new ball for every game.

Outgrowing its founder

With so many young fathers looking to connect with their sons after World War II, Stotz's vision for organizing sandlot players really took off.

Stotz became a baseball evangelist and well-known public figure, but in his efforts to plant Little League in new communities across the US and overseas, the organization grew and became more corporate than he, a determinedly common man, liked. "He was leading an organization that was rapidly going international in scope," Van Auken says, "but he would still rake the field at night or fill in as a coach."

Van Auken points to a dichotomy in Stotz, who resisted commercialism in some ways, yet also brought in team sponsors and Little League's first national sponsor, US Rubber.

Things got ugly as Stotz tried to maintain control. He resorted to legal measures and formed a rival organization called Original Little League, which never attracted many defectors.

"People [at headquarters] now are proud of the fact that Carl started this program and think other people should know that," Mr. Van Auken says.

One indication are the words "In the memory of Carl Stotz" on the scoreboard at the new World Series stadium built at Little League's 66-acre complex in Williamsport. The main field, Howard J. Lamade Stadium, seats 10,000, but an additional 35,000 spectators often watch the championship game from a large hill beyond the outfield fence.

Although parents have been central to Little League's success since the beginning, overzealous adults have presented challengers for just as long. In Little League's first season, in fact, Stotz once had to lecture the crowd after a fan berated the umpire, causing him to walk off the field.

Little League now is in the early stages of developing a parent-orientation program, not because of a noticeable rise in bad behavior, but because when incidents occur, they tend to receive increased media attention. "The whole world hears about them," Van Auken says, "yet on any given night in the spring and summer, we are playing about 10,000 games and probably a million a year, and maybe a dozen incidents of violence in the stands or on the field reach our ears [at headquarters]."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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