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Mark Hyman: Little League at Seventy

Today's post is from Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. Hyman is a sports writer for BusinessWeek and numerous other publications.

Book cover for Until it Hurts by Mark Hyman Little League Baseball is marking its 70th anniversary this year with a spring- and summer-long series of celebrations, parties and assorted other nods to the past. One occurred last week.

The press release posted on the Little League Baseball Web site read: "In the lobby of the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum, Little League International continued its year-long celebration of the program's 70th anniversary with Thomas 'Tuck' Frazier, a player during Little League's first season in 1939, selecting the first winning names in the annual Little League Baseball World Series ticket lottery."

Congratulations to the winners, Michelle Rhodes of Jersey Shore, Pa., and Mark Mangan from Larksville, Pa., each of whom will receive four tickets to the Little League Baseball World Series World Championship Game in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in August, as well as World Series caps, T-shirts, trading pins, souvenir programs and gratis admission to the Little League Baseball museum.

What interested me most was the reference to Tuck Frazier, one of the first Little Leaguers. In my reporting for Until It Hurts: America's Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, I spent a couple of hours quizzing, but mostly listening to, two other original Little Leaguers. Neither interview made it into the book, unfortunately. But meeting the Little League pioneers remains one of the highlights of the project.

At the time, both men were well into their seventies. One was Al Yearick, the first Little League alumnus to play professional baseball. The other was William "Bill" Bair, who greeted me with a firm handshake and pressed into my palm a business card. Although I had just begun work on the book, and was far from certain about the direction of the project, I knew in an instant to pay attention. And to save Bair's card.

Bair's calling card listed the usual -- name, address and phone number. But in smaller, black type was a unique biographical note. It read: "1939 player, 1st Little League Batting Champion, .462."

Bair explained how he'd become Little League's first batting king. He was 12. He'd been playing baseball at a local sandlot with a bunch of kids, some his age, many older. And he just happened to meet an energetic man with a big idea. His name was Carl Stotz.

As Bair explained to me, Stotz came to Sunday School to meet with a small group of boys. A bookkeeper employed by a Williamsport lumber company, Stotz told Bair and the others about his plan for an organized youth league in which players wore real uniforms and played with new balls and ended by saying: "If you're interested, meet me at the park and bring your glove,"

Stotz started his league the following summer. Three teams took the field, sponsored by the only local businesses-- Lundy Lumber, Jumbo Pretzel and Lycoming Dairy-- willing to support the curious venture.

Bair and Yearick remembered plenty about that first season-- the kid-sized bats, the scratchy wool uniforms, the bumpy baseball diamond with scaled-down dimensions.

Until It Hurts tracks the role of adults in the evolution (at times, devolution) of youth sports. So as we sat on a veranda overlooking Carl Stotz Field, where some of the earliest games were played, I steered the conversation in that direction. What did the parents make of the league?

Bair explained that during the first season, adults had been active as coaches of the teams and helping out with various tasks that the kids couldn't accomplish alone, mainly creating the first Little League diamond. He recalled a series of "work parties," to which dads carried rakes and shovels.

Once the season began, he explained, the adults mostly vanished. Except for Stotz and a few lieutenants, parent sightings were rare.

"There was no one there to watch," Bair recalled.

"It was new to the parents," said Yearick.

So few showed up, in fact, that during the first few seasons the Little League field in Williamsport lacked an amenity that parents now consider absolutely essential. There were no bleachers.

You might also want to check out: "When an 18-Year-Old Son Needs Elbow Surgery" (NY Times), "Why not let kids be kids?" (Asbury Park Press), Mark Hyman on NPR's Here and Now.