Pieces of Our Past: November Week 1
Having a Ball: For One Little Leaguer, Autographed Baseball Immortalizes Little League’s Inaugural Season
The 1939 Little League Baseball playoffs are forever etched in the memory of Charles P. Smith, who was 12 years old when he received an autographed baseball commemorating his hitting prowess in the first year of the league’s existence.
“While I am very proud of the stats on the baseball, the real story of the ball is the one that was told to the audience and me at the banquet,” Mr. Smith said in making his donation to the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum. “It was the first baseball that Tommy Richardson signed as president of the Eastern League.”
The hand-signed ball was presented by Mr. Richardson to the catcher of the Lundy Lumber all-star team.
“The fact that both Tommy Richardson and (Williamsport Mayor) Leo Williamson were present at the banquet shows their support for the formation of Little League that year,” Mr. Smith said.
“I’m sure you all realize the great vision and effort put into Little League by Carl Stotz and George and Bert Bebble,” Mr. Smith said. Mr. Stotz and the Bebble brothers managed the first three teams in the league.
The banquet was held at a small restaurant owned by the Mayor. The 10 players on each team, their parents and the managers were invited.
According to the statistics listed on the ball by Mr. Stotz, Charles Smith was at-bat 14 times in the five games that the Lundy Lumber team, managed by George Bebble, played during the playoffs. His batting average was .571 in championship play. During the regular season, Mr. Smith played in 13 games and was up to bat 38 times, hitting .317.
The official Eastern League baseball is signed by Mr. Richardson. It also bears the words: “Little League Record of Charles Smith 1939.” It identifies the record holder as “Catcher All-Star Team.”
The late Mr. Richardson was one of Williamsport’s most famous citizens because of his extensive involvement in the world of professional baseball. He also was a world-class toastmaster and after-dinner speaker.
The Eastern League was a minor league baseball league which operated primarily in the northeastern United States. Initially, it was the New York-Pennsylvania League, but was renamed the Eastern League in 1938.
As Director of the Williamsport Grays, the minor league team playing in Williamsport, Mr. Richardson became a close friend with the Philadelphia A’s owner and manager, Connie Mack. That friendship with Mr. Mack may have been a major factor in Mr. Richardson's election as President of the Eastern League in 1937. His talent for showmanship and promotion is considered a major reason for the league drawing one million fans for the first time in 1939, as well as the league’s survival during World War II, when it was only one of 10 minor leagues that continued operating during the war.
As for Mr. Smith, he and his two brothers were “always playing ball somewhere” and were thrilled when their parents agreed that they could join Little League.
His younger brothers were friends of Major and Jimmy Gehron, Mr. Stotz’s nephews. Mr. Stotz “came to our house to ask our parents if we could play on a team,” he said. They agreed and the Smith boys as well as Charles’ best friend, Louie Langley, played on the team sponsored by Lundy Lumber.
“We played on the diamond on West Fourth Street,” Mr. Smith said. “We were part of the troupe that set the distance between the bases.”
He noted that at first the pitcher’s mound was closer to the batter, but the distance was changed when the average 12-year-olds became taller.
Initially a shortstop, Mr. Smith said his position was switched to catcher because of an exhibition game at Bowman Field. Each of the three teams played two innings against the others for a total of six innings. Because the backstop was far away and he was one of the older players on his team, George Bebble asked him to catch.
“It was the first game I ever caught and I never stopped,” he said, adding that a team played with 10 players that first year. “We had a short fielder.”
Mr. Smith said Little League taught him three valuable lessons that he applied to his management career with Sylvania:
Don’t smoke if you want to go around the bases fast.
How to win and lose.
Managers don’t hit home runs, players do.
This research was made possible through a General Operating Support Grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The Museum is at 525 Route 15 Highway, just south of Williamsport, and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and by group appointment from Labor Day through Memorial Day. Its hours are extended during the summer season. The facility is accessible to the disabled.
Rates are $5 for adults; $3 for those 62 and older; $1.50 for children between the ages of 5 and 13. There is no fee for children 4 or younger. Group rates and tours are available. The Museum also offers birthday parties and after-hours facility rentals.
The Museum is closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days.
For more information, call the museum at (570) 326-3607; or visit http://www.LittleLeague.org/Learn_More/museum.htm.