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 mini-Olympics."
Like the Olympics, Little League has struggled to preserve its integrity. Watching over-sized 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 program's founder.