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Few athletic undertakings in history have been viewed with more alarm or pointed to with more pride than Little League baseball. And few have nourished as prodigiously. Right now, on the eve of the 11th Little League World Series (which is itself one of the most controversial elements of the situation), the movement has completed a decade of amazing growth. Ten years ago there were approximately 1,000 Little Leaguers. In the season just past, almost 300,000 boys were in uniform in regular leagues, another half million were on "farm" teams and uncounted thousands played for teams unaffiliated with but patterned after the Little League. Anticipating no slump, the league has started a nonprofit foundation and a drive for $1 million to provide, among other things, a permanent headquarters, an adult training program and a source of income against its annual operating deficit. For an organization which has been accused, by one professional educator, of fostering "a silly yet thoroughly dangerous form of madness," the Little League is doing very well indeed.
That the parents whose youngsters play Little League baseball consider it neither silly, dangerous nor mad is implicit in their participation. This has not, however, prevented an epic war of words over the league's merits. Arguments for and against will be considered in detail next week but, in brief and in sum, critics of Little League feel that organized baseball puts too much competitive pressure on children 8 to 12, that it takes up too much of their play time, that coaches and umpires are poorly trained if trained at all, that the program is overcommercialized, that it is for the few rather than the many, that it excludes other worthwhile games, that its attendant newspaper publicity and tournament trips swell young heads, that it involves excessive risk of injury to immature bones and joints and that many parents reward and punish their sons unreasonably for performances on the playing field.
Friends of Little League, who in the main seem to regard it as a gift from on high, emphasize, first of all, that it enables boys to play baseball—the national game—under adult supervision and with good, safe equipment. They contend further that a taste of boyhood competition, far from being harmful, is good training for later life, that commercial sponsorship within limits is not undesirable (after all, it helps pay the bills), that a good local program will exclude no eligible boy who wants to play, that it is better to have supervised tournaments than run the risk of uncontrolled postseason games, that it is pretty nice to see Johnny's name in the papers, that the game's potential physical dangers are exaggerated, that baseball teaches team play and respect for authority, that Little League is a bulwark against juvenile delinquency and that the close parent-son relationship promoted by Little League is of incalculable value.
The league's program, logically enough, is not given a blanket endorsement by all of its admirers nor a blanket indictment by all of its critics. Some of its most earnest advocates have strong reservations about tournament games in general and the World Series in particular. National officials, who have shown remarkable aptitude for rolling with the punches and finding converts among the dissidents, are approaching next week's three-day Series with characteristic caution. Part of the antitournament bloc already has been appeased by the ruling that local leagues may abstain from postseason games. When the champions of the nation's four regions meet in the Series at Williamsport, Pa.—birthplace and national headquarters of the league—they will be shielded from the madding crowd, except when actually playing baseball, behind the ivy of Lycoming College. There they will be examined, weighed, measured and given a number of scientific tests, the results of which will go into the league's already bulging research files. The number of Series finalists has been reduced this year from eight teams to four, and since 1956 only all-stars from the most mature age groups—the 11- and 12-year-olds—have been permitted to play. Having made the Series as palatable as possible for the don't-like-its, the league undoubtedly will stand firm. The official line from Williamsport is that the tournament playoffs are necessary to shut out wildcat playoffs, but it is transparently clear that the Series' national publicity value is enormous. The big-name sportswriters and radio-television broadcasters who report the Series are mostly favorable and frequently rhapsodic in their coverage. There is no reason to believe the league will pinch off that golden vein unless it is convinced the tournaments are genuinely harmful to the boys involved. As of now, top officials feel that no evidence of this has been offered.
The essential business of Little League, to be sure, is not producing kid heroes in a junior World Series—that is a byproduct—but providing organized baseball for youngsters. Its success has been so remarkable that a Boston barber, once a minor league player, was moved to snarl, "You know what's killin' the minor leagues? It's not television—it's the damn Little Leagues." His point was that the average citizen with a choice between watching a minor league game and his son's Little League game would, naturally, go out to see his flesh and blood. Like many brain waves, the barber's is not necessarily buttressed by fact (one of the most enthusiastic boosters of Little League and, in fact, a former vice-president is Tommy Richardson, president of the Eastern League), but it underscores the league's startling pulling power. In 1947, when the U.S. Rubber Company became its sponsor and financial angel, the league had 60 teams, most of them in Pennsylvania. A year later team strength had vaulted to 376. There were more than 1,000 teams in 1950, more than 10,000 in 1953 and nearly 17,000 last year. Today there are 19,500 teams, situated in 47 of the 48 states and 22 countries abroad, including Saudi Arabia. Most of the foreign-based teams involve American citizens at military installations, but a few are all-native. The league expects to have an all-English core of four teams next year, which will give cricket traditionalists something to brood upon.
Popular in small towns
At home the heaviest concentrations of Little Leaguers are in the Northeast, the Southwest and on the West Coast. Small and medium-sized towns without municipal recreation facilities are the most popular breeding grounds. The basic unit of operation is the local league, which normally is composed of four teams but may have as many as five or six teams. Each league, with certain exceptions, is limited to a population area of 15,000. A league must be franchised anew each year by national headquarters, which receives an annual fee of $25 from four-team leagues, $30 from five-team leagues and $35 from six-team leagues (these payments are the only source of regular income for national operating expenses, and in the past U.S. Rubber has covered an annual deficit of approximately $100,000). Local leagues are responsible for outfitting their teams, acquiring a playing field with certain regulation dimensions and enlisting managers and umpires. Conventional baseball uniforms and caps are required equipment, and a protective helmet must be worn at the plate and on the base paths. In its basic measurements the diamond is two-thirds major league size—60 feet between bases rather than 90 feet, 44 feet from pitching rubber to home plate rather than 60 feet 6 inches. In practice it may be a school or playground diamond or an elaborate, specially designed Little League field, depending upon the means and aspirations of the adult volunteers. Leaders of the Coronado, Calif. league, by the way, have the batting averages of their youngsters computed every Monday morning on the Navy's mighty electronic calculators at San Diego. Local leaders are advised to find a paying sponsor for each team to defray major expenses. In return the sponsor—a civic group, business or service club, for example—may have its name on the player's uniforms but ideally, according to Williamsport, no voice in team or league policy. Not unnaturally, national officials do not like to hear players described as "baby sandwich boards," which has happened, and urge extreme caution in selecting suitable sponsors. The locals are asked to accept one fixed sum each year from a sponsor and no more. Additional funds are raised by passing the hat at league games.
More provocative than the subject of sponsorship is the matter of player selection. Williamsport has handed down a detailed guide anticipating virtually every pitfall in virtually every situation and particularly player selection, for well does it know how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a child who failed to make the team. Each league is urged to invite every eligible boy within its boundaries to a spring tryout, after which the regular, uniformed teams are selected by the various managers in secret auction. In new leagues every manager starts with 36,000 "credits," with which he bids against his rivals to choose a team. When their credits are exhausted the managers fill out their rosters by naming additional players, in rotation, one by one.
At the beginning of each subsequent season, a manager receives 10,000 new credits, and bidding to replace graduated players commences. Earnestly explicit in its recommendations, Williamsport warns under Section X ("Brothers") that "brothers becoming candidates at the same time shall be auctioned under the family name to avoid separation." Teams may have no fewer than 12 nor more than 15 players. Under past rules this meant five 10-year-olds, five 11-year-olds and five 12-year-olds on a 15-player team. The 5-5-5 pattern gave way this year to a 4-5-6 grouping—a move designed to give a break to boys who were passed over earlier because of the temporary awkwardness that frequently accompanies the onset of puberty. Where he formerly chose just five 10-year-olds to replace his graduating 12-year-olds at the start of a season, the manager now picks one 12 and one 11 plus four 10s. Every team is required to play 18 games during the summer, exclusive of tournament playoffs, and interleague games are prohibited. Night games are frowned upon by headquarters but are more convenient for working adults than day games and, consequently, are frequently held. For safety's sake, games are six rather than nine innings long, and pitchers—in the most strenuous position—are permitted to work only one complete game or any combination of 18 outs during a Sunday-Saturday week. Metal cleats may not be worn, but rubber cleats are O.K. The rubber cleat, incidentally, was of surpassing importance in the development of Little League, as we shall presently see.
Since the uniformed teams rarely can accommodate all the candidates in a league's territory, the device of a "minor," or "farm," league has become popular to take care of the overflow. Boys too young or inept to win a pair of flannels draw T shirts and caps and play baseball under similar rules.