Pieces of Our Past: January Week 1
The Pearl: A Chronicle of Little League’s Early Years
What a privilege it was to be a member of the Lycoming Dairy Little League team for 4 years - from 1953 through 1956. Wearing that blue cap with the white 'L' on the front, which now is on display in the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum, was one of the greatest honors I have had in my lifetime.
While playing organized baseball and fast-pitch softball through 1983 (30 years), those four years spent at Original League, the first Little League in the world, continue to be the ones I cherish the most.
It was 15 years after Carl Stotz dreamt up and founded a baseball league for children that it became a worldwide activity.
Ollie Fawcett was my coach (team members often referred to themselves as Ollie Fawcett's 12 little 'drips'). He was one of Carl's best friends and the proud recipient of a Founder's Ring – given to him by Carl.
Our coach would visit each of the 12 members of his team during the winter months, see how we were doing in school, and urge us to stay out of trouble and attend church as often as we could. He cared about us as young boys, not just as athletes. I was a catcher, and upon receiving my woolen cap in the spring, I would take it home to my mother who would sew the white 'L' on the front.
My best friend, Gary Richey, also played for Lycoming Dairy. The statue near the left-field fence at Little League Volunteer Stadium in South Williamsport, Pa., portrays a young boy (Richey) in his Lycoming Diary uniform with Mr. Stotz. That statue was made from a picture that was taken of Carl and Gary at the 1954 LLBWS. If you have a chance to travel to Little League International and visit Volunteer Stadium, notice the words 'Original Little League' on Gary's shirt on the statue.
Notice, also, we wore sneakers, not cleats. I watched that picture being taken, and how proud I was that my best buddy was out there on the pitcher's mound with Carl Stotz, our friend and the founder of Little League Baseball. My blue cap, which I donated to the Little League Museum, has white spots on it because, after I grew older, my dad would wear the cap while he painted the various rooms of our house. Had I known how much I would value that cap (I really had four – one for each year) I would not have let him use it for painting. My purpose for donating it to LLB was for young Little Leaguers of today to see what we players wore 55 years ago. And, because Lycoming Dairy was one of the 3 original teams in Little League history – the other two being Lundy Lumber and Jumbo Pretzel.
How special it was to have two uniforms – home 'white' and visitor 'gray' – for our games. We did pre-game warm-ups to music – Souza style March music – and that was very special.
Mac McCloskey was the announcer who made us feel 'big league' as we played. He would announce the battery mates, play music before the games, between innings, and then play Kate Smith's rendition of 'God Bless America' at the conclusion of the game. Ollie told me many years later, that Mr. McCloskey did this so that the parents of the Little Leaguers would know the game was over, and the kids would be coming home.
Many parents attended the games, but some did not, so the music would resound through the Memorial Park for all to hear. Mac had invented a remote-controlled scoreboard – a first worldwide – that Original League used. Even Bowman Field, a minor league ballpark across the street from Original, had a manually-operated scoreboard, not a remote one. The strikes, balls and outs and innings were put on the scoreboard by hand at Bowman, but at 'my' field, Original, it was done by Mac electronically – and this was 1953!
The other 3 teams were Richardson Buick (maroon), Lundy Lumber (green) and Hemperly's Service Station (red).
I wore my blue Lycoming cap during the winter months because I was so proud to play at Original where we were treated 'big league' style.
Howard Gair and his son, Vance, were regular umpires at Original. How proud I was to see Howard then doing Little League World Series games on Original's field. He did our league games, and then did the big games for the Series.
As a catcher, I would talk to Howard a lot during the games. He was a humble man who thoroughly enjoyed helping young 9-to-12 year-old players. I used to come back to watch Original League games after I moved on to Mid-City League play – a league for 13-to-15 year-old players.
It was at Original one evening that Vance asked me if I would umpire the bases for a game since the other adult umpire couldn't make it to the field that night. I said 'yes,' and that was my start in umpiring – something I have done at the high school and college level until the present time (2008).
I remember wearing my blue cap to Original to umpire games (yes, even when I umpired Lycoming Dairy games). Back then, the players and parents weren't thinking the umpire would favor a team. How pleasant the thought. You can see that there is a lot of nostalgia connected with that blue Lycoming Dairy cap.
Every summer day in the park adjacent Original League we would have sandlot games, pickup games, played over near Park Pizza where the statue of Carl Stotz and the Bebble Boys is located. That was our playground, and all the guys wore their Little League caps, and all four colors were represented. Every day, all day, even rainy days … we wore our caps and played sandlot games outside the Bowman Field fence.
We got our baseballs from the night before when the minor league players would hit foul balls over the fence, and we would chase them down and run like crazy so the ball chaser wouldn't catch us. Sometimes, we'd relay the balls to the next guy if we heard the ball chaser getting close to us. We always had new balls, and were given broken minor league bats by Al Belandi, the groundskeeper. We'd have our dads put some nails in the wooden bats and use them the next day. Yes, 11- and 12-year-old boys using broken/repaired 34-inch bats. We didn't care. It was fun.
No one supervised us, we solved our problems ourselves, had a few arguments, kept 'wearing our blue, maroon, green and red caps', and kept on playing. Other guys in the nearby neighborhoods – like Newberry – would love to challenge us to games so they could play with new balls. Theirs were always taped with black electrical tape, but not ours! We would wear our caps to 'sneak' in to the minor league games by climbing the fence, grabbing the guide wire that runs 45 degrees along the telephone pole outside the high green fence on the third base side of the field.
Webster Elementary had Original League caps all over the playground during school months in the fall. They were ubiquitous throughout our neighborhood, and we even wore them to Stevens Jr. High School after we turned 13.
Then, when some of the guys joined other teams, they would start wearing the intermediate league team caps. BUT, for the precious four years (that seemed like a lifetime) of tenure on an Original League team, life was as good as a 9-to-12 year-old boys could have it.
I still go back to Williamsport several times per year to see friends and relatives, and umpire at Bowman field for Penn College. Every time I visit, I always stop and walk around the Original League Field … my personal field of dreams. I sometimes walk around the bases dreaming about the many, many specific wonderful moments I experienced on that field while playing for Lycoming Dairy wearing the blue cap with the white 'L' on the front. There was a fraternity among my friends who played at Original – one that extended even into Williamsport High School as we would pass each other in the hallways as 17- and 18-year-old seniors. We played under the maroon, blue, green and red Original Little League caps, an experience that few individuals ever had.
Lastly, all 12-year-olds were taken to see the Hershey Bears in the winter as a "final gift" by the coaches to the players. We all wore our caps, sat together, laughed together, and rode home in the dark bus knowing this was our last moment of being an Original Leaguer. And … we were all friends, and better for having had the experience of wearing a Buick, Lundy, Hemperly or Lycoming cap. It was the athletic experience of my lifetime, and I'm still involved heavily in baseball umpiring Legion, high school, college and even as a fill-in for minor league baseball. What a wonderful thrill to travel down memory lane as I walk the perimeter of Original League.
Later in life, I would, from time to time, visit Carl Stotz and Ollie Fawcett in their homes. When I would knock on Carl's Garden View home, I knew a fun experience was awaiting me, as the Founder of Little League would be telling me stories of how my favorite game was begun. I was never disappointed, and always learned more about Little League – how the Little League insignia was designed, how Mac invented the remote control scoreboard, what Carl's dreams were for Little League, how he met Cy Young, and so much more. He and my dad, Basil, became friends, since my dad was a pastor of a local church across the park from Original field. They would often talk together on a sunny afternoon on or around the Original field as Carl was preparing the field for another Little League game.
When my son was Little League age, I used to bring him up to Original and spend hours during summer days pitching batting practice to him on the field where I once played. When my three grandsons became 10-, 11- and 12-years- old, I brought them up to Original (from my home two hours away) and pitched batting practice to them for many hours. A half century after I had played for Lycoming Dairy at Original League, I was still playing on this memorable field with my grandsons.
Visitors to Little League International see a fabulous place when they arrive at the South Williamsport fields, but they miss the 'pearl' if they don't see the Original. That is Americana at its best. A 'piece of my heart' lies on the Original League field … and it always will.