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BACK IN THE GAME Baseball: In 1955, the Little League ejected the founder who wouldn't play ball. Now, five years after his death, the corporate entity seeks to reawaken the sporting spirit of his game.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This afternoon, as two teams of 11- and 12-year-olds play the nationally televised championship game of the Little League World Series, it might be an appropriate time to honor the founder of Little League baseball in the most fitting way possible: by turning off the TV and having a catch with Dad out back.

Behind the mom-and-apple-pie image of Little League is this dirty secret: Carl E. Stotz, the man who invented the miniature version of the national pastime in this old Susquehanna River town, never much liked what became of his creation.

Stotz, who started the very first Little League in 1939, believed that Little League Baseball Inc., the federally chartered non-profit organization that administers more than 7,000 Little Leagues around the world, has become too big and too corporate, more concerned with public relations and TV revenues than the experiences of the 3 million children who participate annually. Stotz so disliked the World Series, in fact, that he never visited Lamade Stadium where World Series games are played -- even though admission is free and he lived only 3 miles away.

The World Series, he said in 1989, "takes away from the sport what Little League is all about, a chance to play neighborhood baseball."

Nevertheless, the youth baseball program is now an American institution, and Carl Stotz ought to be an American icon. The fact that he isn't known to the American public, and that so many of his lessons have been so callously dismissed, are the consequences of a classic American story of idealism and betrayal.

Carl Stotz, an unemployed lumberyard clerk, drew up the dimensions of the first field, hand-carved its home plate, and served as Little League Baseball Inc.'s first commissioner, its chief missionary, traveling the world to spread the faith. And in 1955, for all his trouble, he was excommunicated.

He was barred from Little League's headquarters by sheriff's deputies. The corporate executives who took over administration Little League Baseball Inc. wrote him out of all the official histories. They also severed relations with the Original League, the very first Little League, which Stotz continued to run on the same field where it all began in 1939.

Sometimes, Stotz worried publicly about the problems that might befall a national organization that seemed to emphasize winning over character. Recent events have shown his concern to be well-placed. A team from the Philippines is stripped of the Little League World Series title for juggling rosters and falsifying birth certificates. In the U.S., soccer and basketball cut into the appeal of youth baseball. The negative headlines are unrelenting: the Illinois coach assaulted by his rival; the California parent arrested with a knife meant for the umpire.

But more than 40 years after the break between Stotz and Little League, a new CEO, Stephen Keener, has begun a quiet campaign to resuscitate Stotz's image and place in history, "to recapture Carl's spirit" for Little League.

Keener has chatted up Stotz's family. He has made frequent trips to the Original League field. Last year, Keener organized a ball toss, during which more than 1,000 Little Leaguers formed a 5-mile line and relayed a baseball from the Original League field to Lamade Stadium. But rehabilitating a discredited revolutionary like Stotz can be difficult. Particularly when the revolutionary isn't helping. Stotz died five years ago.

An inspiration

In high school he was barely 5-foot-8, only 112 pounds. His teammates called their light-hitting shortstop "Sparrow."

Carl Stotz was never much of a ballplayer, and he never had any sons of his own. He was 28, recently married and between jobs when, while playing ball with his nephews in the back yard, he tripped over a lilac bush and the idea hit him. "How would you like to play on a regular team, with uniforms and a new ball for every game and bats you can really swing?" he asked the boys.

Soon they all piled into a black '34 Plymouth sedan and drove through Williamsport's west end to a clearing by the Lycoming Creek dike. On this field, which became the first league's permanent home in 1942, Stotz and the boys tested possible distances for a miniature baseball field for youngsters. Eventually, he settled on a distance of 60 feet between the bases, two-thirds the size of a major league diamond.

That first season, Stotz did almost everything. He cleared space for the field. He signed up managers for two teams and coached the third himself. He penciled designs for uniforms. After being turned down by 56 companies, he found three sponsors to pay for the balls ($2 per dozen) and the wool uniforms ($1.58 each).

"He got to know every kid in town," says Grayce Stotz, his widow. "And with the uniforms and their own field, he had no trouble convincing them to play ball."

From the beginning, Stotz set the tone. His league was about fun, fitness and sportsmanship, not winning. He took pride in making the teams as even as possible. Bill Bair, now 70 and a retired steel engineer, was the star of Stotz's team. "I was big and I wanted to be a pitcher," recalls Bair, "but Carl thought I threw too hard. He said, 'Billy, We've got little kids, smaller than you. We need to give them a chance.' "

"Carl kept it very low-key," says the Rev. Raymond Best, a retired Lutheran minister who played right field in 1939. "He wanted us to learn how to be on a team, and have fun."

After World War II, Life published an article about the league, and parents from around the country began to contact Stotz. He gave speeches on both coasts, handed out copies of the Original League's rules, and offered advice on how to attract volunteers to anyone who asked. He entertained players and managers from the major leagues who visited Williamsport to see the games. For a man with a high school education who had done little traveling, the experience was a revelation.

"He was not a businessman. He was a laborer," says Karen Stotz Myers, the younger of his two daughters. "He never ran anything besides Little League. And he was always determined that parents and volunteers, not he, would be running it. Little League was a common man's creation."

While he was not sophisticated, Stotz was unshakable in his values. In those heady days, Stotz turned down a $1,000 fee to appear on TV's "This Is Your Life" after he learned a cigarette company was among its sponsors. Commercialism and professionalism were fine for business, he often said, but Little League should abide neither.

"Little League had taken hold in community after community because some individual or small group wanted to provide it for the boys of their neighborhood," he wrote in his autobiography, published shortly after his death in 1992. "I wanted each neighborhood league to be separate and autonomous, and all leadership provided by capable residents of the community serving as volunteers. On that, I was resolute!"

Still, he sought out several big companies for help in providing kid-sized baseball equipment. Spalding made the balls, Louisville Slugger the bats, and U.S. Rubber, working from a design by Stotz himself, produced the first rubber baseball spikes, to replace the more dangerous metal variety.

U.S. Rubber liked the publicity so much it agreed to fund transportation and expenses for a Little League World Series, a national tournament that Stotz saw as a promotional tool. When that, too, proved successful, U.S. Rubber offered to bankroll a national governing body for Little League. In 1949, Stotz became Little League's $8,000-a-year, full-time commissioner.

Almost immediately, U.S. Rubber began complaining that Stotz wasn't expanding Little League fast enough. In 1952, a company public relations executive with an Ivy League education, Peter McGovern, was dispatched to Williamsport to become Little League's president. He rewrote bylaws to take powers away from Stotz, and replaced volunteer board members with celebrities and other executives.

It wasn't long before Stotz and McGovern clashed. One fight came after Stotz refused to reschedule rained-out games for Sundays, when league rules prohibited play. (Stotz, a Lutheran, said the boys were better off in Sunday school). Another rift occurred when McGovern increased the number of players per team from 12 to 15. More players, Stotz argued, meant boys with lesser skills would spend too much time on the bench.

Stotz also began criticizing one of his own creations: the Little League World Series. It was intended as a way to spread the idea of Little League across the country. But the competition to reach the series had become so intense (more than 7,000 teams, one from each league, now enter the tournament every year) that tournament play, during which only each league's 14 best players participated, lasted most of the summer. The regular season was pushed back into the school year.

"Carl said the Series was making the boys into pawns in the managers' dreams of victory," says his biographer, Ken Loss. "He was dealing for the first time with people who knew how to manipulate."

In 1955, McGovern decided he had tolerated Stotz long enough. He fired Stotz's secretary while he was out of the country. When Stotz returned, he demanded McGovern's resignation. McGovern refused. Sheriff's deputies were posted to keep Stotz out of league offices. Stotz sued for breach of contract, and Little League countered with its own suit. Stotz lost, with the judge reasoning: "Everyone knows Little League baseball, but no one knows Carl Stotz."

Stotz took a job as a tax collector. He never crossed the river to visit the new Little League Baseball Inc. complex built for the 1959 Series. Instead, he poured his passion back into the local league, the Original Little League, the one he had started in 1939. After McGovern died in 1984, the new league president, Creighton Hale, invited Stotz to a handful of functions, but Stotz never accepted.

"I don't know how I can make this any clearer," he said in 1989. "I don't want anything to do with them."

Stotz never got over the slights. In the last three years of his life, he became so obsessed with reliving Little League memories, and tending to the baseball shrine kept in his daughters' old clubhouse, that his wife Grayce left him.

Since his death in 1992, his daughters, Karen Myers and Monya Adkins, have kept up the Stotz presence at the Original Field, even though neither has any children in the league. Myers, a deputy Lycoming County treasurer, volunteers in the concession shop and serves as league historian. Adkins, a registered nurse in Beaver Creek, Ohio, makes the 500-mile drive to Williamsport at least once a year.

During World Series week, the Stotz daughters have an open house at the Original Field, a sort of counter-demonstration to the hoopla at Lamade Stadium. Inside the small Formstone clubhouse, visitors can see a display of memorabilia: early uniforms, the first insurance waiver form for parents, the lilac bush that was Stotz's unlikely inspiration.

"This is the real story of Little League," says Karen Myers. "You won't get that across the river."

Whose history?

Across the Susquehanna in South Williamsport, Little League Baseball Inc.'s headquarters sits on a hill. The complex has 43 acres, about 70 employees, an annual budget pushing $10 million, a sunken stadium that seats 40,000, six baseball fields, an Olympic Village-style barracks for the World Series teams, and a $2.3 million Little League Museum -- named for Peter McGovern.

At the museum's opening in 1982, no mention of Stotz was made in its exhibits. After McGovern's death a few years later, the museum opened a Founders ' Room, which credited "a group of concerned adults" in Williamsport with the league's creation. Stotz appeared only in a group picture.

In the late 1980s, Dr. Creighton Hale, who succeeded McGovern as president, began to offer a new account of the league's origins to young reporters who knew no better. He credited Stotz as a co-founder, along with George and Bert Bebble, the managers Carl had recruited for the very first season.

"It's disappointing," says the Rev. Raymond Best, a retired Lutheran minister who played for Stotz in the 1939. "I remember Carl coming to our house to tell us about the league. When I went to the museum, I complained. They ignored him almost entirely."

Adding insult to historical inaccuracy, Little League Baseball's lawyers sent frequent letters to the Original League warning of infringement in its continued use of the term Little League, which Stotz had coined with a newspaper editor's help in 1939.

But in 1994, Hale retired and Little League Baseball chose Keener, who is 40, as its new president. His predecessors had been outsiders to Williamsport, but Keener was born in town and played Little League in nearby Lock Haven. A gregarious man, he also had managed to develop a warm relationship with Stotz.

"I met Carl a number of times, and we had some wonderful conversations," says Keener. "I think he was simple and good in his orientation. All he was really interested in was in giving kids the opportunity to play ball."

Keener says Little League needs more of Stotz's simple spirit, and that making peace with Stotz's family is important. He has thrown out the first ball for games at the Original Field. He also helped set up a Carl Stotz college scholarship for local students.

"Everyone knows what happened in 1955, and it wasn't good," Keener says. "But we'd like to put the past behind us."

Karen Myers says her family has been impressed, and calls the field-to-field ball toss Keener organized last year "a step forward." But she says Little League must make further amends, including clarifying her father's role as sole founder in its museum exhibits.

Keener says his ultimate goal is to end the split between the Original League and Little League Baseball, which he and other newer Little League officials consider an embarrassment.

"I'd be less than candid if I didn't admit that we would welcome them back to the program," he says. "But there's so much history there, that I think we need to start slowly."

But over at the Original Field, the idea of reunification has met with mixed reactions. Grayce Stotz says, "It might be a good time for it, now that McGovern is dead, which is all I'm going to say about him." Myers says she, too, would agree to it, if Little League waived all the fees required to join.

But Stotz's other daughter, Adkins, is not sure. "Why do we need to be affiliated? It'd be nice for the Corporation," which is the Stotzes' disdainful term for Little League Baseball Inc., she says. "It would end their embarrassment, but we don't need it."

Team spirit

One night earlier this week, 112 children, all members of this year's eight Little League World Series teams, made an unprecedented bus trip down West Fourth Street to Williamsport's Original Field.

The players, from as far away as Japan and Saudi Arabia, wandered around the outfield, chattering in Japanese, Spanish and English. Fireflies lit up the area behind the outfield fence. Everyone posed for a picture. Pablo Torres, center fielder for Mexico's team, kissed the ground. "It looks pretty good for a field that is so old," he said.

In the twilight, somebody made a suggestion, something all the boys could do for good luck. So the Little Leaguers lined up at home plate. And each took a turn rounding the bases set up a half-century ago by Carl Stotz.

Pub Date: 8/23/97

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