SI Vault
Nicholas Dawidoff
April 04, 1988
It was such a pleasant day in April 1960 in Fort Wayne, Ind., that 80-year-old Dale McMillen decided to take a couple of hours off from running one of the nation's largest soybean processing businesses and watch a Little League game or two. As he pulled up to McMillen Park (which he had donated to the city in 1936) in his chauffeur-driven Cadillac, Mr. Mac, as he was known around town, was pleased to see that things were already under way. Unfortunately, he quickly discovered that they were not the kinds of things he wanted to see.
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April 04, 1988

In Mr. Mac's Wildcat League, Everyone Gets To Play

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Wildcat may be a T-shirt league, but it is a first-class operation. Back in 1961, McMillen got former Brooklyn Dodger Carl Erskine, a native of nearby Anderson, Ind., involved in Wildcat baseball. Erskine was the one who advised McMillen to emphasize teaching the fundamentals in his league over winning championships. The Wildcat League has never lost sight of that admonition. Each practice during the eight-week season is devoted to teaching a single skill, such as fielding grounders or laying down bunts.

Coaches are not assigned to individual teams, and they generally work games and practices in pairs. While one coach remains near the bench, offering advice to hitters, minding the score book and keeping other players off the backstop, the other, assuming a position behind the mound, umpires and assists the base runners and the defense. Either coach can halt the action for what the league calls The Teachable Moment.

If, for example, a ball trickles through the first baseman's legs, a coach is likely to stop the game and briefly explain the proper way to field a grounder. The coach may even hit a few to the first sacker to help restore confidence. Because everybody plays—and plays everywhere—The Teachable Moment draws interested eyes and ears rather than bored sighs and scowls.

Another thing that separates Wildcat from Little League is that parents are not encouraged to attend games or practices. "We don't want any pressure here—we just want the kids to have fun," says league president John Grantham, who is a high school administrator, assistant athletic director and former coach. "We say to the parents. 'You stay away, and we guarantee you a happy son or daughter when he or she leaves two hours later.' "

Parents don't seem to mind being left out. Says Eugene White, a high school principal who spent seven years as a Wildcat coach and had a son in the league, "It's a great program, and you won't believe the satisfaction you get when you open up a boy's world by teaching him to hit a baseball."

The league generates enviable enthusiasm among its alumni. Some, like Hershberger, a former college player who admits he couldn't play a lick as an eight-year-old, become Wildcat instructors. Others are outspoken fans. Says city councilman Mark Giaquinta, "When I was an eight-year-old, Little League could be ruthless. If you were a goat, you heard about it for weeks. In Wildcat everybody plays, so if someone strikes out, he strikes out. It's no big deal, so long as he is trying his best."

Erskine, now a bank president in Anderson, still holds admiration for Mr. Mac's foresight. "I've never seen anything comparable to Wildcat baseball," says Erskine. "I think the community is so aware of the good Wildcat has done that the city would support it even if for some reason the trust vanished. I run into successful people all over the country who've been Wildcatters, and their affection for the program is amazing. You know, if I had to put up the photographs of the three people I've most respected in my life, they'd be Branch Rickey, Norman Vincent Peale and Dale McMillen."

Wildcat's emphasis on teaching skills has paid off. Last summer a Little League All-Star team from Fort Wayne was invited to a tournament in Milwaukee. The team was made up of about 50% Wildcat alumni. Last season four high school teams tied for the Fort Wayne city championship. Nearly three quarters of the players on those squads were former Wildcatters.

Still, in Wildcat baseball, fun takes priority over winning titles or developing future stars. At the season-ending awards ceremony, the trophies given out for perfect attendance are the same size as those given to members of first-place teams. Mr. Mac wouldn't have had it any other way.

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