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Ever since Little League baseball erupted from Pennsylvania 10 years ago and spread all over the country, it has been the subject of hot debate—not of baseball as a sport, but of baseball as a social crucible for pre-teen-age boys and their parents. The controversy has bubbled up during a period in which we have poked into Johnny's soul as never before. In the junior hot-stove leagues it isn't Tinker to Evers to Chance any more, it's Gesell to Ilg to Ames. Readers of Auntie Mame will recall a situation in which the proprietor of a superprogressive school discovers the 11-year-old hero perusing a book. "Mame," he exclaims, "you let that child read?" The question put to the parents of Little League ballplayers by some of the most severe critics of the movement, with approximately the same degree of horror, is essentially, "You let that child play organized baseball at his age?"
It should be understood, from the outset, that Little League has never lacked influential support, nor has it failed to gain substantially in local league strength in each of the last 10 years. Professional baseball people are for it overwhelmingly. Baseball writers have given it much praise. Top industrial leaders have endorsed it. Former President Herbert Hoover has called it "one of the greatest stimulants of constructive joy in the world" and Dwight David Eisenhower has sent best wishes.
But the two basic arguments which strike at the roots of Little League pop up year after year: it puts too much competitive pressure on the children; it brings out the monster in too many parents and adult leaders.
These arguments can be heard across the country, and year by year they have grown in intensity. The substance of the case against Little League was summed up not long ago by Guy Bushby, an official of the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission. "Practically all the psychologists and child welfare specialists," he said, "plus the California Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation and all persons dealing with child care feel that the type of intensive competition fostered by Little League baseball is not to the best interests of the child 12 years old and under."
The key words in Bushby's summation of charges are "intensive competition." How much competition is too much? There is a considerable difference of opinion among educators and child specialists on the matter. In an article entitled, "Little League Baseball Can Hurt Your Boy" (Look, Aug. 11, 1953), Charles A. Bucher, professor of education at New York University, said: "The drive to win is traditional in America and must be preserved. But a boy will absorb that lesson soon enough in high school. In his grammar school years it is more important that his recreation be guided toward other objectives: the fun of playing rather than winning; the child rather than the game; the many rather than the few; informal activity rather than the formal; the development of skills in many activities rather than specialization."
Dr. George Maksim, chairman of the school health committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says: "Undue pressures from highly organized programs at this age are undesirable and may be detrimental." But he also says, "There's nothing wrong with Little League baseball as long as it is confined to local competition and as long as exploitation and commercialism are avoided. Competition is a part of the growing child that should be recognized, accepted and directed."
As played in the major leagues, baseball is, of course, fiercely competitive. This has its effect on Little League play; chiefly on the adults concerned but sometimes, by reflection, on the youngsters, too. "Nice guys finish last" is one of the imperishable slogans of the big time. Questioning the umpire's call on a close play is an automatic reaction. Many fans consider it part of their birthright to be able to yell, when so moved: "Ya stink, ya bum, ya," or one of the infinite variations on that familiar theme.
Little League officials maintain they are well aware of the dangers implicit in this freedom to question higher authority. The program strives to teach its young players respect for authority, team play, sportsmanship, grace in victory and defeat; it preaches moderation and understanding to their parents. But there is no denying that, on the local level, these ideals are not always realized. Item: in Allentown, Pa. not long ago, the adult manager of a non-Little League team induced two Little Leaguers to jump their teams and join his by offering free taxi rides, sightseeing trips to New York and flashy team jackets.
This is the kind of isolated situation which tempts observers on the sidelines to condemn junior baseball out of hand. Actually, that is unfair. Such excesses are not prevalent; where they do occur, they are generally due to the difficulty—one which will always plague Little League—of reserving one set of attitudes for the big leagues and another for junior baseball. The source of the most widespread criticism concerning the hazards of competition is that Little Leaguers frequently cry after losing an important game or committing an error on the field. Defenders of Little League invariably reply that these tears vanish quickly and that it is difficult to distinguish between winners and losers a few hours after the game. A child's interest span is shorter than an adult's; adults who become deeply involved emotionally over Little League situations tend to judge the children by their own adult reactions.
A test for emotions