Few feelings come close to the satisfaction of hitting a home run. With the weighty crack of the bat and the cheer of excited parents and fans, it’s easy to understand why baseball is “America’s Pastime” for adults and children alike. It earned that title in the 1800s, around the same time that Little League was getting its start.
In the 1880s, pre-teen children in New York began to form their own baseball leagues, swept up in the popularity of the sport. These smaller, ragtag groups were far from the Little League organizations we’re familiar with today, but they had the same spirit, enthusiasm and passion for the game.
Unfortunately, these leagues never flourished, weakened from an affiliation with adult “club” teams. Children chose to play “pickup” baseball in streets or sandlots instead, using substandard equipment like taped and re-taped bats and balls, unable to find anything in their size.
The American Legion developed a baseball program for teenage boys in the 1920s, which is a program which still exists today. As this was happening, schools started to form their own baseball programs, but there were still no options for pre-teen boys who wanted to participate in organized games.
This changed in 1938 when Carl Stotz decided to organize a baseball league for boys in his hometown of Williamsport, Pa. Though he had no sons of his own, he wanted to create a program for his nephews, Jimmy and Major Gehron, whom he played baseball with often.
The first season in 1939 was a success, but World War II soon entered the picture. Many fathers in the United States joined the military, and priorities shifted away from Little League Baseball. By 1946, only 12 leagues organized around Stotz’s original model existed.
The following year, the original Little League board of directors organized a tournament for all known Little League programs. They called it the National Little League Tournament. Eventually, the tournament was renamed Little League Baseball World Series, as it’s called today.
Little League soon grew to encompass 94 leagues, then grew to 307 leagues in 1949. A feature about Little League Baseball in the Saturday Evening Post spread the story to more than 14 million people, and communities across the country jumped at the opportunity to start their own programs.
Over the next several years, interest in Little League only continued to grow. The first leagues outside the U.S. formed at both ends of the Panama Canal, with the first permanent league organizing in British Columbia. This momentum — and the public spotlight — made Little League a recognizable name.
Countries around the world, from Japan to Uganda, have organized their own Little League programs. What started as a kind gesture on the part of Carl Stotz has transformed into an international sensation, televised on ESPN with incredible viewership.
Though Little League has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the streets and sandlots of New York, that same spirit, enthusiasm and passion still remain. Those ragtag groups of kids who played with second-rate bats and balls would feel proud to see their dream realized.
Today, people who are interested in forming a program in their community have plenty of resources to get started. As long as they approach the task with a commitment to seeing it through, they’ll provide an opportunity for children in their area to enjoy the magic of baseball and everything the sport has to offer.
Running the bases after smacking a home run while fans roar with excitement is an event that will continue to thrill pre-teens for decades to come. With the support of professional baseball players, interest in Little League is experiencing even more growth, and the sport will no doubt endure to uplift and inspire new generations of young players and adult volunteer organizers alike.