The thwack of a baseball colliding with a bat and the thump of a folded newspaper landing on a porch are sounds I cherish. They’re rewinding for me this month while watching the Little League World Series.
As a kid, I played for four years on a team in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Our ballpark didn’t have much green; it was more of a weedy brown. The field sat alongside the town dump on Croton Point, where gulls ate dinner and then flew over to watch our games. We were good, but we never made it to the World Series.
This month, 16 teams from across the U.S. are competing for the championship in South Williamsport, Pa. Because of the pandemic, which forced cancellation of the tournament last summer, the event is limited to domestic teams, with attendance restricted to families and friends of the players.
The first Little League game was played in Pennsylvania in June, 1939. It was hardly a nail-biter, as Lundy Lumber defeated Lycoming Dairy, 23-8. The World Series was inaugurated in 1947, immediately occupying just about every boy’s dreams.
One of them was Jim Barbieri of Schenectady, N.Y., whose team won the 1954 tournament. Six years later he was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and six years after that became the first person to have played in both the Little League and Major League World Series.
In 1974 Little League began a concurrent girls softball tournament in Greenville, North Carolina. Girls are allowed in the hardball event as well, but few have participated since 1984 when Victoria Roche from Belgium became the first to give it a try.
In my new book, “Self-Amused,” I discuss how for kids like me in the 1960s, the intertwining of baseball and newspapers made perfect sense. These were All-American entities, allowing us to work hard and play hard in pursuit of our dreams.
I peddled a weekly with the unusual name “Grit.” Dubbing itself “America’s Greatest Family Newspaper,” Grit was started in 1882 when a German entrepreneur named Dietrick Lamade bought the name and converted the paper to an independent tabloid serving rural America. Lamade advised his staff to “avoid printing those things which distort the minds of readers or make them feel at odds with the world.” Typical was a 1965 story headlined, “Americans With Warm Hearts Help Needy Mexican Peasants.”
By 1932 Grit’s circulation stood at 400,000; in the mid-fifties it reached 700,000, and in 1969 circulation topped out at 1.5 million. More impressive than its popularity was the fact that Grit was sold almost entirely by kids like me—some 30,000 of them at the paper’s zenith. Lugging canvas bags with GRIT in bright red letters, we learned a lot about the game of business.
Today, Grit survives only as a bimonthly magazine.
George R. Lamade, who followed his father as Grit’s publisher, and his brother Howard, a vice president in the company, believed in helping kids. They donated land in South Williamsport on which was built a genuine Field of Dreams.
When the Little League champs are crowned on August 29, it will happen on a diamond where memories of playing ball and delivering papers intersect. At Lamade Stadium.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker