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Pioneering Spirit: District Administrator Bob Santheson Was a Forbearer of Little League’s Challenger Division

Pioneering Spirit: District Administrator Bob Santheson Was a Forbearer of Little League’s Challenger Division


Good ideas seem to find ways of becoming reality, no matter the obstacles set forth by the conventional wisdom of the day.

As it turned out, the members of Downey Memorial Little League in Brockton, Mass., and Bob Santheson, former Massachusetts District 7 Administrator, were just such pioneers.

During the mid-1980s, the Downey Memorial Little League Board of Directors, League President John R. Reed and the league’s special needs directors, Carol and Roy Girouix developed plans to operate a youth baseball program for children with physical and mental disabilities.

From its first proposal, Mr. Santheson supported the endeavor that would later become a cornerstone of the Little League Challenger Division. Little League adopted the Challenger Division in 1989.

In a letter to Dr. Creighton J. Hale, then Little League International President and Chief Executive Officer, dated July 1987, Mr. Santheson said, “It is my belief that not only will the special needs children benefit, but the image of Little League Baseball will be enhanced by presenting the first charter to this worthwhile program.”

With conviction and purpose, Mr. Santheson championed the belief that children with mental and physical disabilities should be afforded the same opportunities to experience Little League in much the same way as their able-bodied counterparts.

Downey Memorial Little League was successful, prosperous, and well-supported by Brockton residents. In a report presented to the Little League International Charter Committee in the summer of 1988, the structure and operation procedures for a program to service “special needs” children were explained.

Backed by the endorsements of President Ronald Reagan, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, along with U.S. Senators Bob Dole, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, the report described how the league operated its registration, developed rules and regulations, and set forth playing games using the existing Little League Tee Ball format.

Throughout the mid-80s, Mr. Santheson, was supportive of the program and served as a liaison between Downey Memorial Little League and Little League International in Williamsport, Pa.

Kansas Sen. Robert Dole served as chairman of a task force commissioned by Little League International to determine the best way to operate a large-scale program for children with various disabilities

“All young people now have the opportunity to benefit from a program sponsored by an organization recognized for unsurpassed leadership in sports,” Sen. Dole said. “I am pleased that Little League is launching this wide-ranging effort in a sport which aims to build self-esteem and encourages the value of teamwork, citizenship, and fair play.”

Working from recommendations set forth by the task force, the Little League Challenger Division was created. The first charter was granted to Downey Memorial Little League’s Kinsella Reds and Blues on Feb. 26, 1988.

“Little League has been asked to fill a void,” Dr. Hale said. “Because of our track record, we’ve been asked to extend our program to mentally and physically challenged children. It’s a tribute to our success.”

Mr. Santheson was District Administrator for Massachusetts District 7 from 20 years (1972-1992). He received his 20-year service pin at the 1992 Little League International Congress in Boston.

The accomplishments of the Challenger Division in the last 20 years have translated into nearly 1,900 teams and 28,000 players having the opportunity that Downey Memorial Little League and Mr. Santheson had envisioned.


Bob Santheson, right, served as Massachusetts District 7 Administrator from 1972-to-1992. At the 1992 Little League International Congress held in Boston, Mr. Santheson and Shannon Kinsella, left, the first girl to participate in the Challenger Division, were part of the Congress’s opening flag ceremony. In the mid 1980’s, Mr. Santheson and members of the Downey Memorial Little League in Brockton, Mass., worked tirelessly to provide a Little League program for the children in the district who were physically or mentally handicapped. Their efforts laid the foundation for the Little League Challenger Division, which became part of the Little League program in 1989.