WILLIAMSPORT, PA. — This afternoon, as two teams of 11- and 12-year-olds play the nationally televised championship game of the Little League World Series, it might be an appropriate time to honor the founder of Little League baseball in the most fitting way possible: by turning off the TV and having a catch with Dad out back.
Behind the mom-and-apple-pie image of Little League is this dirty secret: Carl E. Stotz, the man who invented the miniature version of the national pastime in this old Susquehanna River town, never much liked what became of his creation.
Stotz, who started the very first Little League in 1939, believed that Little League Baseball Inc., the federally chartered non-profit organization that administers more than 7,000 Little Leagues around the world, has become too big and too corporate, more concerned with public relations and TV revenues than the experiences of the 3 million children who participate annually. Stotz so disliked the World Series, in fact, that he never visited Lamade Stadium where World Series games are played -- even though admission is free and he lived only 3 miles away.
The World Series, he said in 1989, "takes away from the sport what Little League is all about, a chance to play neighborhood baseball."
Nevertheless, the youth baseball program is now an American institution, and Carl Stotz ought to be an American icon. The fact that he isn't known to the American public, and that so many of his lessons have been so callously dismissed, are the consequences of a classic American story of idealism and betrayal.
Carl Stotz, an unemployed lumberyard clerk, drew up the dimensions of the first field, hand-carved its home plate, and served as Little League Baseball Inc.'s first commissioner, its chief missionary, traveling the world to spread the faith. And in 1955, for all his trouble, he was excommunicated.
He was barred from Little League's headquarters by sheriff's deputies. The corporate executives who took over administration Little League Baseball Inc. wrote him out of all the official histories. They also severed relations with the Original League, the very first Little League, which Stotz continued to run on the same field where it all began in 1939.
Sometimes, Stotz worried publicly about the problems that might befall a national organization that seemed to emphasize winning over character. Recent events have shown his concern to be well-placed. A team from the Philippines is stripped of the Little League World Series title for juggling rosters and falsifying birth certificates. In the U.S., soccer and basketball cut into the appeal of youth baseball. The negative headlines are unrelenting: the Illinois coach assaulted by his rival; the California parent arrested with a knife meant for the umpire.
But more than 40 years after the break between Stotz and Little League, a new CEO, Stephen Keener, has begun a quiet campaign to resuscitate Stotz's image and place in history, "to recapture Carl's spirit" for Little League.
Keener has chatted up Stotz's family. He has made frequent trips to the Original League field. Last year, Keener organized a ball toss, during which more than 1,000 Little Leaguers formed a 5-mile line and relayed a baseball from the Original League field to Lamade Stadium. But rehabilitating a discredited revolutionary like Stotz can be difficult. Particularly when the revolutionary isn't helping. Stotz died five years ago.
In high school he was barely 5-foot-8, only 112 pounds. His teammates called their light-hitting shortstop "Sparrow."
Carl Stotz was never much of a ballplayer, and he never had any sons of his own. He was 28, recently married and between jobs when, while playing ball with his nephews in the back yard, he tripped over a lilac bush and the idea hit him. "How would you like to play on a regular team, with uniforms and a new ball for every game and bats you can really swing?" he asked the boys.
Soon they all piled into a black '34 Plymouth sedan and drove through Williamsport's west end to a clearing by the Lycoming Creek dike. On this field, which became the first league's permanent home in 1942, Stotz and the boys tested possible distances for a miniature baseball field for youngsters. Eventually, he settled on a distance of 60 feet between the bases, two-thirds the size of a major league diamond.
That first season, Stotz did almost everything. He cleared space for the field. He signed up managers for two teams and coached the third himself. He penciled designs for uniforms. After being turned down by 56 companies, he found three sponsors to pay for the balls ($2 per dozen) and the wool uniforms ($1.58 each).
"He got to know every kid in town," says Grayce Stotz, his widow. "And with the uniforms and their own field, he had no trouble convincing them to play ball."