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Divorcing After 75 Years

“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” proclaimed a newspaper headline referencing baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson’s admission that he had helped fix the 1919 World Series between his Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati.

One hundred three years later, I had a similar reaction when learning of the news that the Newberry Little League had severed its very long affiliation with Little League Baseball International with its announcement that beginning this spring, it will be a Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth Softball League. Newberry was one of the very first leagues in the country to join the Little League program and just this past year celebrated its 75th anniversary as a Little League member.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve known of very few couples that have celebrated their 75th anniversary and in none of those instances did such a union end up in divorce. With no past history to base it on, it would be my guess that the divorce papers might have listed alienation of affection as the cause of the split.

Since founder Carl Stotz launched the Little League program in 1939, Williamsport has become a Disney-like destination for small-fry baseball players around the world and, along with those early lumber-baron days, has stood as the two most paramount identities of our area’s history. The early growth of Little League forced Stotz to seek financial support, which came via the U.S. Rubber Company and eventually led to Peter McGovern’s elevation to Little League president. McGovern was followed by Dr. Creighton J. Hale and the current President/CEO Steve Keener.

Although each of the quartet faced varying challenges, the ideals Stotz created long stood as the bedrock of what made Little League so appealing. Little League was a local community program with defined boundaries, baseball rules streamlined for its pre-teen players with playing opportunities available with little regard to the skills of its players. The opportunity to play the game was what it was all about.

But 75 years is a long time, and much has changed within our social structure along the way. As the old-timers would say, “things just aren’t the same as they used to be.” What once was common and accepted have changed. F.W. Woolworth Company, Blockbuster Video, Borders Bookstores, and Aunt Jemima pancake mix are among so many great product providers that have passed from the scene.

Newberry Little League, the land of Fred Heaps and championships, enjoyed tremendous on-field success. The league won 17 District 12 championships, appeared in the National 1947 Little League Tournament and in the 1969 Little League World Series. They are the last Lycoming County team to get to the LLB World Series. Their softball program chipped in with10 local district titles.

For local leagues, drawing Heaps’ team in the district tournament was an elimination ticket. As a Little League manager, I was 0-2 against his squads, including one memorable game played at the old Memorial Little League field when our Little Mountaineer team fell victim to a come-from-behind home run hit by Kevin Stahl on an ill-advised curveball pitch selection.

In taking their ball and going home, Newberry is apparently signaling its growing dissatisfaction with LLB rules. Although the league has made no public comment on its decision, by joining the Ripken program, they are not encumbered with any league boundary restrictions, meaning they can draw players from anywhere they’d like.

Shifting populations, boundary restrictions, participation rules, and the tremendous interest in Travel League baseball and softball have all become obstacles facing LLB in recent years.

I can recall a conversation in the stands at Lamade Stadium several years ago as broadcast colleague Mike Fogarty and I met with a representative of an Illinois league participating in the World Series. We asked him if he was scouting one of the teams playing as they would be his team’s next opponent. “Yes,” was his response, “but we already know a lot about them as we have already played them twice this year.”

Mike and I were stunned by his comment and to learn that these same two leagues had met in Travel Ball tournaments in Cooperstown, New York, and the Midwest previously that summer. Since that time, many of the teams arriving for the annual World Series have had extensive Travel Ball experience before arriving here.

Little League Baseball remains the biggest and, in my opinion, the best youth sports program out there, but they do have their warts. International membership among its ranks has grown, but it’s been accompanied, some of it driven by COVID-related complications, by chartered league losses in the United States.

Over the years, LLB has made changes to its original provisions that restricted leagues to a 15,000-population base. During the same time, leagues with multiple Little League programs have merged due to population changes or competitive desires. Such was the case with the 2021 LLB World Series champion Taylor, Michigan. A city of 63,409, Taylor once boasted three chartered Little Leagues. In 2019, those leagues merged to form the Taylor North Little League that now reigns as World Champions.

As you would expect, Little League International reacted to Newberry’s departure by stating they are “disappointed, but remain committed to ensuring that every child has the opportunity to participate in a Little League program.”

The former Newberry Little League chartered territory will be divided among the Williamsport Area Little League (on the north side of the Susquehanna River) and South Williamsport’s Little Mountaineer Little League (on the south side of the river, Duboistown, and Nesbit).

Newberry now joins the Memorial and Maynard leagues in Williamsport, which had previously discontinued their Little League operations.