Little league made us all big leaguers
In 1972, ABC aired the Little League World Series from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, “in color”, on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” with the great Mickey Mantle providing “expert commentary”.
The August 27 newspaper account mentioned that teams from more than 6,100 leagues in 31 countries competed in “state, section and regional tournaments” for the chance to make Williamsport’s elite eight.
The article noted that many Little League graduates had reached the major league ranks, including Carl Yastrzemski, Tom Seaver, Boog Powell, Reggie Jackson and Dave McNally.
Mantle himself was connected with youth baseball, the article mentions, with his interest shown “through the establishment of the Mickey Mantle Little League, with teams in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas and other major cities”.
Needless to say, my Little League team from River Park in Chicago did not join this select company in Williamsport.
We did, however, reach our version of Williamsport, Chicago’s Thillens Stadium, where, as the dusty trophy on my shelf attests, my Apex team finished in third place.
The match was not televised. There was an AP announcer. Mickey Mantle didn’t come.
My team had neither Powell nor Yastrzemski. At second base, I was definitely not Mike Andrews or Glenn Beckert. I was helpful, usually able to field a ball on the ground and sometimes lucky enough to catch a pop-up.
One thing I never really learned was how to hit a baseball, a slightly more achievable feat than solving the Rubik’s Cube.
Which made the occasions when I had a hit all the more memorable.
I was lucky enough to have my grandfather, a locksmith who lived nearby, on hand for one of them. It made me proud to hear him talk about it afterwards with my family in his cabin in Albany Park.
But mostly I tried to find other ways to get to base, because one thing I had was speed (maybe we should have followed Charlie Finley’s lead and had a designated runner. I would have been Herb Washington’s version of River Park).
In the days before the sabermetric obsession with on-base percentage, a walk was definitely as good as a hit for me.
And during a game, when the other team’s pitcher was hitting every batter in sight, I followed my lead.
Standing at the plate, I armed myself, just like I did later while waiting for my COVID vaccine. Sure enough, I was hip-dived. My efforts were rewarded when I came to score this round.
Another time we were up against another pitcher who was a bit more skilled. I had the brilliant idea for streamers for once. One problem with that, though. My coaches had never worked on this skill with me. I’ll let you guess the result.
The beauty of the River Park League – and Little League in general – was that anyone could play. In a way, it was the big league for all the kids.
In fact, my first team was called Lucky Starr, a group that would have made the Bad News Bears look like the Yankees of 1927.
Another great thing is that it really brought me and my dad, Max, closer together. One of my treasured memories is that he knocked me to the ground at a local park.
I had blond hair at the time, which reminded him of a baseball player named Blondy Ryan, so when he hit the ball at me, he would yell, “Come on, Blondy.
It also fostered at least a lifelong friendship, even though my friend Brandon lives in California. I still remember how his father used to pick us up at the games. The Corvette only had two seats, so one of us had to sit between the seats. No onerous seat belt laws at that time.
The River Park League had teams as strong as Allin’s Paints. An ad I watched reminded readers that “not all paints are created equal”.
We had real uniforms, including the stirrups, which made us feel like real baseball players, which we never would be.
The coaches, as they were, didn’t really teach us the game. They basically filled out the roster cards and shouted encouragement.
Unsurprisingly, one of them had a tendency to throw his not-so-gifted kid. Hey, that was Chicago.
But despite the lack of education, I gained a real appreciation for baseball and big league skills.
After the games, we headed to the ice cream parlor at Lawrence and Kedzie’s. Years later, a trumpeter friend and I visited this same space, but this time it was a Mediterranean restaurant. Nowadays, I prefer kebabs to ice cream cones.
At the end of the season, we took the team photo.
Not all memories are tinged with a nostalgic glow. A collision with an opponent resulted in the rearrangement of my braces – the teeth would survive even if the nerves were damaged.
And this last match at Thillens is also a bit tarnished. My usually reliable roster of ground players failed me on a few key plays, which led to some whiplash from my teammates. And wouldn’t you know, this is the game where I finally figured out how to hit, get an extra base hit.
I can understand how much the big leaguers today love having the clubhouse TV tuned to the Little League World Series. It takes them back to a time when baseball was played for pure fun.
The same way that damaged trophy on the shelf reminds me of the joy of donning a uniform. The blue and silver relic is surmounted by the figure of a batter in his batting stance. Appropriately, the bat broke.