Sideline Slants

Once upon a time my friends and I played kids games like midnight ghost (a glorified version of tag at night), kick the can, whiffle ball, and of course, Little League baseball.

Which game doesn’t belong in that group? If you said Little League baseball you’re right, because it is the only game with adults in charge.

I enjoyed both unorganized and organized games.

Apparently times have changed. Most kids today aren’t having fun in organized youth sports. Studies show that 70 percent of the estimated 20 million children who participate in organized out-of-school athletic programs will quit by the age of 13 because of unpleasant sports experiences. That’s 17.5 million unhappy, dispirited children. It paints a rather bleak picture of organized sports in America.

Generally, children like to play games. Adults like to win. Children like to have fun. Adults like to win. It’s not that children have anything against winning, it’s just that winning a T-ball game isn’t as important as the soft drink that follows.

Carl Stotz arguably had the biggest influence of anyone in the history of organized youth sports. He is the “Father of Little League Baseball.”

I learned about Stotz from author Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, and his book, Why Johnny Hates Sports.

Stotz grew up in Williamsport, Pa., before organized baseball existed. The older kids in the neighborhood wouldn’t let Carl play with them. After all, he was just a “little kid.”

Later, while working in a local sandpaper plant in Pennsylvania during his late 20s, Stotz came up with idea of putting together a program for “little kids” so his two nephews would have an opportunity to do something he could never do when he was growing up. They would play baseball in an organized format. They would play in Little League.

Stotz and his friends started the first organized baseball program for children in 1939. Through trial and error Stotz discovered that by placing the bases 60 feet apart instead of the 90 feet length in Major League Baseball, that a young infielder could throw out a runner at first base.

Stotz banned curveballs because he thought that might not be the best thing for a growing youngster’s arm, and he designed rubber-cleated shoes so the children wouldn’t be hurt by real metal spikes.

He even went so far as to address unruly parents in a rather novel way: Anyone who got too loud was presented with a handwritten card that explained the game was for boys, and could you please leave them alone so they could play the game.

Just a decade after the 1939 debut, organized Little League baseball had spread into more than 12 states, with more than 850 teams in nearly 200 leagues.

By the 1980s, the influence of Little League was being felt internationally as 2.5 million children played on about 140,000 teams in 17,000 leagues in 45 countries.

As early as the mid-1950s, Stotz was beginning to grow disenchanted with what Little League baseball was becoming. The focus was shifting from having fun to winning games and tournaments.

Engh writes: “Stotz was a visionary. He knew the grim realities of too much pressure and stress on children; he knew how things can turn ugly when there’s an overemphasis on winning. Yet, somehow, we have let it happen on our watch.”

He says that for many children, sports have become a chore they put up with in order to please their parents.

“An ever increasing number of coaches, and parents-the most important role models in a young athlete’s life-pay lip service to the importance of sportsmanship, fair play, and fun in youth sports,” Engh writes. “It’s all too clear that their real focus is on winning-whatever the cost-and their actions at games are speaking a lot louder than any empty words.

“Participation in organized sports can provide children with memorable experiences. As adults, we need to make sure those memories are happy ones.”

Let’s keep the play in “Play ball!”

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