Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, Belmont Heights Little League from Tampa, Florida, cemented their chapter in the Little League® story with a memorable run at the Little League Baseball® World Series (LLBWS). The history of this Urban Initiative league from a small neighborhood in Tampa is intertwined with the roots of Little League itself, with the two entities continuing to grow and thrive alongside each other to this day.
“Belmont Heights Little League is a huge part of Little League’s history,” said Demiko Ervin, Little League Director of the Urban Initiative. “The league has been around for so long and they’ve had so much success.”
The road to LLBWS prevalence started with one standout Little League volunteer, Florida District 6 Administrator, Tappy Rodriguez, who officially made the Belmont Heights program a branch of Little League International in 1968.
Just a few years after joining Little League, in 1973, Belmont Heights LL rallied after a second-round loss to finish third in the world in their first-ever trip to Williamsport. The league was back again just two years later in 1975, winning second place behind the pitching of future MLB product Vance Lovelace and the batting of future U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and 2003 Little League Hall of Excellence Enshrinee, Wilbert Davis.
A brief hiatus from the LLBWS allowed Belmont Heights LL to expand into four divisions of play, adding three new fields to their facility in Tampa and allowing more kids to experience the magic of Little League baseball.
Since the league’s inception in 1971, Belmont Heights LL has produced three future MLB players, none of them more notable than legendary outfielder, Gary Sheffield. In 1980, Mr. Sheffield was a part of a talented Belmont Heights squad that featured future MLB outfielder, Derek Bell; future NFL linebacker, Maurice Crum; and future U.S. Olympian, Ty Griffin. This star-studded lineup powered Belmont Heights LL back into the LLBWS championship game where they would fall to the team from Chinese Taipei. The next year, Mr. Sheffield and Mr. Griffin would graduate from the Little League program, but that did not stop Mr. Bell, Mr. Crum, and the Belmont Heights LL squad from repeating as U.S. Champions, taking home second place at the LLBWS two years in a row.
“There is a lot of history there and it gives the current Little Leaguers something to strive for, someone to look up to,” said Mr. Ervin, “It’s extremely important to show the families of Belmont Heights that there are many untapped opportunities in playing baseball and softball.”
On the surface, Belmont Heights LL is one of the most storied dynasties of Little League and the Urban Initiative. The league has won countless championships at the district, state, and region levels and made their mark at the most iconic youth baseball tournament in the world, the LLBWS.
However, the league from a small neighborhood in Tampa does so much more than win games, using baseball as a vessel to instill valuable wisdom in the youth baseball and softball players of Belmont Heights.
The creation of the Belmont Heights LL Alumni Club in 2018 allows the fabled trailblazers of the past to mentor the up-and-coming leaders of the future, proving that the most important life lessons can be learned between the foul lines of a baseball diamond.
“There are more players that didn’t make it to professional baseball but turned into successful individuals that you’ve never heard of. That’s the biggest contribution we made to our community,” said Artis Gambrel, former Belmont Heights Little League President. “We aren’t trying to produce a major league baseball player, we’re trying to produce a young man that can go out and experience the American dream.”
The Belmont Heights LL continues to compete in Little League state and region tournaments every year in pursuit of its fifth Southeast Region championship. Set to kick off on August 4, updates on the Southeast Region Tournament can be found on LittleLeague.org/Southeast. For more information about the Belmont Heights Little League and other Urban Initiative Leagues, visit LittleLeague.org/UrbanInitiative.
NOTE: This story is a piece of the 75-Part Content Series celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Little League Baseball World Series in August 2022. Join in on the celebration by using #LLWS75 on social media and by tagging @LittleLeague on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on the celebration, please visit LittleLeague.org/75.