At 75, Little League World Series has lost its innocence

At 75, Little League World Series has lost its innocence

By William C. Kashatus
Times Leader
August 20, 2014

Mo’ne Davis is a breath of fresh air for Little League Baseball’s World Series.  It’s not just because the ace of Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons is the first girl to hurl a shut-out in the history of the tournament, either.

After defeating Nashville, Tennessee, 4-0, in the first round, sportswriters asked about her game plan.  “It’s not just about me,” she said with a maturity beyond her years.  “It’s about the whole team.”

The words reminded me of how much better the Little League World Series (LLWS) would be if the adults involved in it would demonstrate the same wisdom.

Instead, there’ve been coaches challenging every close call through instant replay.  Media members, hungry for a human interest story, constantly shove microphones before victorious pitchers and game-clinching hitters.  And the corporate executives at Kelloggs, Subway, and Gatorade, among others, make sure their product is shamelessly plugged at every opportunity. Call me “old-fashioned,” but I believe that the “win-at-all-costs” attitude of many coaches as well as the commercialization of the LLWS only serves to diminish the integrity of Little League Baseball itself.

When Carl Stotz, a Williamsport lumberyard clerk, founded the first Little League in 1939, he envisioned a community-based network with a series of teams that would play “neighborhood baseball.”  To that end, Stotz went door-to-door recruiting parents and local businesses. He secured three sponsors to pay for the balls ($2 per dozen) and wool uniforms for the players ($1.58 each).

There were only three teams the first year, and the emphasis was on teaching youngsters the intangible values of “teamwork,” “sportsmanship” and “fair play.”   The idea quickly caught on. By 1947, when the first LLWS was held, the program had expanded to 12 leagues across Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  A year later there were 94 leagues across the nation.

After 1949, when Little League was incorporated, Stotz, the first commissioner, slowly began to lose control of the enterprise.  Corporate executives gradually took over the board.  International competition began in 1950. CBS televised the LLWS for the first time in 1953.

Believing that Little League had become too big, too concerned with public relations and winning, Stotz, in 1956, severed ties with Little League Inc. I can sympathize with him.

Today, Little League Baseball is the world’s largest organized youth sports program, involving 200,000 teams around the globe.  More than 40 million people have played or volunteered.  With that level of involvement, kids are bound to have positive and/or negative experiences.  The determining factor is often the coach.

While there are many fine coaches, there are also others who place winning above everything else.  They are manipulative, bending the rules and behaving as if the game is about themselves, their child and his friends; not everyone on the team.  Some create year-round programs, forcing kids to choose baseball over other sports.  Too often, these are the coaches whose teams make it to Williamsport.

Just as bad is the commercialization of the LLWS. TV revenues have exploded since ESPN began their national broadcasts.  The added hype makes each game a high stakes affair.  Some foreign countries view their team with national pride only if they win. Thus, the LLWS has been dogged by scandal over the years, mostly involving the falsification of birth certificates to give teams a competitive edge by fielding older, stronger players.

Fortunately, Little League International Inc., the non-profit organization governing the sport, has done many things to preserve the integrity of the program. Little League has become much more inclusive over the years, allowing for the participation of girls (starting in 1974), special needs children (1989), and inner city youth (1999).

Several innovations have also been made to insure teamwork (a mandatory play rule); the safety of the players (pitch counts, unbreakable aluminum bats, and protective gear); sportsmanship (pledges for both players and their parents); and fair play (monitoring the ages and geographic residences of the players who compete in the LLWS).

Little League Baseball is no longer the innocent game that Carl Stotz envisioned when he founded it seventy-five years ago.  Times change, but the integrity of the game should not.

Hopefully, the coaches, reporters and corporate executives who are involved will take a cue from Mo’ne Davis and demonstrate a little more respect for the game in the future and the youngsters who play it.