15 Major Facts About Little League Baseball
By Jeff Wells
In late August, New York's Maine-Endwell Little League won the 70th annual Little League World Series. Though this year's championship didn't produce a superstar like 2014's pitching sensation Mo'ne Davis, September's National Little League month is in full swing. To celebrate, oil up your glove and read up on the history behind the world’s largest youth sports organization.
1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A GAME OF CATCH.
In 1938, Carl Stotz, a lumberyard clerk living in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was playing catch with his nephews one day when he tripped over a lilac bush. His frustration quickly turned to inspiration when he decided to start a local league where kids could play organized baseball on a real baseball field. That summer, he set down the rules for Little League Baseball—including field dimensions that are still used today—and gathered enough kids and equipment for three teams to begin playing.
2. THE FIRST TEAMS WERE NAMED AFTER A LOCAL DAIRY, A LUMBER COMPANY, AND A PRETZEL FACTORY.
Circa 1955. Getty
Little League teams today rely on the support of local sponsors to buy equipment, such as bats and helmets. The same was true back in 1938, but without name recognition Stotz had quite a time finding sponsors. After soliciting 56 different local businesses, Stotz finally convinced Lycoming Dairy to agree to back one of his teams. He eventually secured sponsorship from two other businesses, Lundy Lumber and Jumbo Pretzel. In the first-ever Little League game, played on June 6, 1939, Lundy Lumber trounced Lycoming Dairy 23-8.
3. THE FIRST TOURNAMENT CHAMPION WAS THE MAYNARD MIDGETS.
In 1947, Little League Baseball held its first ever championship tournament. With just 12 teams competing, it was a far cry from the sprawling international competition players compete in today. But it still drew 2500 spectators and received national media attention. In the championship game, the Maynard Midgets defeated the Lock Haven All Stars 16-7.
4. GROWTH EXPLODED AFTER A SATURDAY EVENING POST STORY.
In the spring of 1948, Stotz organized an exhibition game in a town near Williamsport. It was one of many such games that Stotz put on for communities interested in adding Little League programs, but there was something fortuitous about this particular game. In the stands was a man named E.H. Brandt, a senior editor with The Saturday Evening Post who was vacationing nearby. Enchanted by the spectacle, Brandt assigned a writer and photographer to write about Little League, which at that point was expanding slowly along the east coast. After the Post’s more than 4 million subscribers read the story the following year, Stotz was inundated with requests from communities eager to start their own Little Leagues. Between 1949 and 1953, the number of leagues doubled every year.
5. THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL TEAMS WERE ON EITHER SIDE OF THE PANAMA CANAL.
Despite wearing his batting glove on the wrong hand, contributing writer Jeff Wells terrorized the diamond at Eastern Little League in Lexington, Kentucky (or at least that’s how he remembers it). For his final season, his parents went all in on the deluxe photo package, which included this sweet woodcut they dredged up from basement storage.
A little more than 10 years after Carl Stotz tripped over his lilac bush, Little League Baseball expanded outside of the United States. The first international teams, started at the same time in 1950, were situated on either side of the Panama Canal. One team, coached by former Major Leaguer Joe Cicero, was called "Pacific," the other "Atlantic." Most of the players were American transplants—children of canal workers and military officers who had taken their love for America’s pastime abroad.
6. TODAY, NEARLY 90 COUNTRIES PARTICIPATE IN LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL.
From Russia to Australia, Burkina Faso to Papua New Guinea, kids from six different continents currently play Little League Baseball. Teams from Asia have been a dominant presence in the annual World Series tournament, while Caribbean teams from the Dominican Republic and Curaçao have been in the ascendancy lately. No team from Europe, Africa, or the Middle East has ever made it to the World Series final.
7. GIRLS WERE BARRED FROM PLAYING UNTIL 1974.
Even after Title IX went into effect in 1972, Little League Baseball staunchly opposed letting girls play. The organization reasoned that girls were more prone to injury, and that baseball was the "prerogative" of young American boys. Across the country, Little League began battling court cases brought by the families of girls who wanted to play. The league typically won out, claiming their organization was a private one and such decisions were theirs to make, but in 1974 judges in New Jersey and Massachusetts ruled that Little League had no right to bar girls from participating. One defendant, 11-year-old Maria Pepe from Hoboken, New Jersey, had played three games in 1972 before Little League threatened to revoke Hoboken’s charter. After the two cases went through, Little League decided it was too expensive to fight the mounting legal battles, and allowed girls to play (but sadly, Maria Pepe was too old to get back on the field).
8. BUT ONE GIRL HAD SECRETLY PLAYED LITTLE LEAGUE YEARS EARLIER.
For one summer in her tweens, assistant editor Caitlin Schneider decided to play baseball with the boys while her girlfriends were playing softball. She cut her hair short and made sure to have a well-worn glove by the time practices started (by literally rolling it in dirt), but then faked an injury the evening of the first game because she was too scared to play. Her dad made her go anyway, and she caught a line drive that ended up being the play of the game. She told everyone that she did it with her eyes closed. All the boys cheered.
In 1950, Kathryn Johnston of Corning, New York, tried out and won a spot on her local Little League team. Small and skinny, and with her hair tucked under her baseball cap (after she had her mother cut off her two long braids), Johnston went by the alias "Tubby," after a character in a popular comic strip. After she revealed to her coach and teammates that she was a girl, Johnston said years later, they all agreed to let her keep playing. In 1951, Little League codified its "no girls" policy.
9. THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL TEAM TO WIN THE LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES WERE A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY.
In 1957, a Little League team from Monterrey, Mexico crossed a footbridge over the Rio Grande to play their first game on U.S. soil. The game, part of the early rounds in the annual Little League World Series, was in McAllen, Texas. The team from Monterrey, which had only recently started playing baseball and played on a makeshift field they had to regularly sweep clean of broken glass and debris, didn’t expect to win. But win they did, and they kept winning—against teams from Texas, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Many of the kids had never left Monterrey and were homesick. Their visas expired. They ate only two meals a day to save money.
Eventually, they made it to the World Series final, where they beat a much bigger and stronger team from La Mesa, California on the back of a perfect game from 12-year-old pitcher Angel Macias—the only perfect game ever thrown in a LLWS championship. Afterwards, the Monterrey players were hailed as heroes. They took in a Brooklyn Dodgers game, met President Eisenhower, and went on a shopping spree at Macy’s, which gave each of the players a $40 credit. When they returned to Mexico, hundreds of thousands of people were there to greet them.
10. LITTLE LEAGUE ONCE BANNED INTERNATIONAL TEAMS FROM THE WORLD SERIES.
Little League may have originated in America, but by the mid 1970s, international teams were dominating the world tournament. This included Japan, which won the Little League World Series in 1967 and 1968, and an utterly dominant Taiwan, which won the tournament four years in a row from 1971 to 1974. In the '73 World Series, Taiwan won three games by a combined score of 57-0, and won the championship game in a 12-0 rout. After Taiwan won again in 1974, Little League took the step of banning international teams from advancing past the regional round of the World Series. Their reasoning: International teams were too focused on winning the tourney. After a major backlash, Little League went back on its decision and re-admitted international teams.
11. WE CAN THANK LITTLE LEAGUE FOR THE BATTING HELMET AND OTHER INNOVATIONS.
Staff writer Michele Debczak strikes a pose in her softball uniform at age 9. After warming the bench for her Revere, Pennsylvania league for one season, she decided that watching the professionals play ball on TV was much more enjoyable.
In 1959, Dr. Creighton J. Hale, Little League’s director of research, developed the first batting helmet with protective ear coverings. It was a design that Little League quickly implemented, and that Major League Baseball eventually adopted for its players. (Considering he also helped develop the Kevlar helmet for the military, Dr. Hale has probably prevented more head injuries than any single person in history). Little League was also the testing grounds for the aluminum bat, the remote-controlled scoreboard, and the first ever "ump cam," worn by umpire Frank Rizzo during the 1985 Little League World Series final.
12. THE FIRST LITTLE LEAGUER TO MAKE IT TO THE MAJORS WAS JOEY JAY.
Over the years, Little Leaguers who have found their way into the rarified air of Major League Baseball include Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver. The first alumnus to do so was Joey Jay, from Middletown, Connecticut, who was signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1953, at age 17 (Allen Yearick, who played in the very first game in 1939, signed with the Boston Braves organization in 1947, but played in the minor leagues). Because of a "bonus rule" at the time that mandated teams keep players above a certain paygrade on their rosters rather than send them down to the minor leagues, Jay only played sparingly in his first few seasons. He eventually was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, where he pitched consecutive 20-win seasons in 1961 and '62. He also pitched in game two of the 1961 World Series, holding the New York Yankees to just two runs en route to a victory (though the Yankees would ultimately win the series).
13. ED VOSBERG, JASON VARITEK, AND MICHAEL CONFORTO BELONG TO AN ULTRA-EXCLUSIVE LITTLE LEAGUE CLUB.
Ed Vosberg, Jason Varitek, and Michael Conforto are the only three players in baseball history to have played in the Little League World Series final, the College World Series final, and the MLB World Series. Vosberg, who played for Tucson, Arizona’s Cactus Little League during their trip to the 1973 LLWS final game, pitched for the University of Arizona during their championship run in 1980, and the Florida Marlins when they won the World Series in 1997. Varitek, meanwhile, played catcher for Florida's Altamonte Springs (1984 LLWS final), Georgia Tech (1994), and the Boston Red Sox (2004 and 2007). And in 2015, Conforto became the third person to join this illustrious group, having played for the Redmond North Little League in 2004, Oregon State University in 2013, and the New York Mets in 2015, where he became the first player to RBI in all three.
14. THERE HAS BEEN NO SHORTAGE OF RECRUITING CONTROVERSIES.
Senior staff writer Shaunacy Ferro (back row, right) and her Santa Paula, California T-ball team in 1994, when none of the players were old enough to care that the professional photographer forgot to show up for their team photo.
Little League has strict age and residency policies for players. Leagues can only draw players from their local districts, as defined in their founding charters, and can only use players younger than 13 (or who turn 13 after May 1 of a given year). Despite the prominent attention given to these rules, for decades teams have flouted them in order to gain an edge in the world tournament. Zamboanga City, Philippines, had its 1992 title vacated after it was discovered to have used overage and out-of-district players (including some who assumed the identity of eligible players).
In 2001, Danny Almonte, a masterful southpaw pitcher from the Bronx who threw a perfect game and led his team to the championship, was discovered to be 14 years old. Just last year, Jackie Robinson Little League from Chicago had to forfeit its tournament win from 2014 after recruiting violations were found. Taiwan, meanwhile, bent the rules for years in recruiting players. In 1997, after being tipped off by the country’s archrival, Japan, Little League took a closer look at the country and tightened its recruitment policies. The next year, Taiwan bowed out of the tournament, saying it could not comply with the new policies.
15. THE ANNUAL TOURNAMENT FEATURES MORE THAN 16,000 GAMES IN 45 DAYS.
Every summer, teams from all over the world slug it out for a chance to compete in the World Series finals in Williamsport. Those that make it have to survive a grueling travel schedule—and, of course, win, again and again and again. The 45-day tournament features more games than six Major League Baseball seasons combined. Combined with the other World Series tournaments that Little League puts on for its softball and other age divisions, the organization oversees the world’s largest elimination tournament.