ST. ALBANS — There’s nothing more ‘summer’ then Little League baseball and softball, and although the fields may not be full this June, area residents have a long history with the program.
Jeff Harvey, who grew up in Franklin County, recalled the summers of his youth and how baseball evolved in St. Albans.
“My friends and I were members of one of the four teams for the initial Little League program in St Albans. I believe it as the summer of 1951,” explained Harvey.
“The four teams were from four sections of the city. All the guys on the teams were friends who played everything together, depending on the sport and season.”
Harvey noted that his childhood experience was much like the movie Sandlot.
“We used to play against each other at one of the elementary schools, like Messenger Street or Barlow Street on Saturday mornings.
“There was no age limit. One of the older guys would announce where we were going, and we would meet and play all morning. No adults or umps, we would just play.”
Things changed in the summer of 1951 when it was announced that a Little League program was going to be established in St. Albans.
“I think that powers in change just made four teams from the respective city areas because it seemed like the same guys who always played against each other continued as the city Little League,” said Harvey.
“The ages were somewhat checked by word of mouth because we all seemed to play, and there were a couple of guys who were over 12. But we had fun even though we now had jerseys and hats, and of course adults and umpires.”
The recent Messenger Sports article on the renovations at Rotary Park brought memories childhood summers back to Harvey’s mind.
“We played most of the games at Houghton Park and some at the Rotary Park location, which is a light-year better than what it was,” said Harvey.
“Back then, it had a new backstop, four bases, and a pitcher’s plate. As I remember, the infield was rough but was much better than the outfield, which had ruts and mounds.”
The summer of 1952 saw even more changes for the youngsters playing baseball in St. Albans. This summer things were ‘official.’
“The next year the powers that be had organized the effort over the winter, as adults do. They had tryouts and drafting, and all that,” said Harvey.
Change is rarely easy and often not appreciated, but the boys made the best of it.
“Those of us who had played with our friends and school mates found ourselves playing on different teams. You may or may not play with more than one or two guys you had always played with,” explained Harvey.
Parent-coaches also took the reigns of the youth teams, another big change for the boys. Harvey, who went on to coach as an adult, learned a lot in those years.
Harvey played for Herb Brault, whose father, he believed, was owner of Twigg’s Men’s Clothing Store. It was Twigg’s who bought Red Sox shirts and hats for the boys’ uniforms.
“It was my beginning to pattern my coaching experiences into good or ‘I’m never going to do that if I ever a coach’ categories, but we played ball which, was what we all wanted to do. And it was an experience!”
Harvey’s experience with Little League may have began in the 1950s, but youth baseball’s roots began in the 1880’s.
During that time, leagues were formed for pre-teen kids in New York, often affiliated with adult ‘club’ teams.
Those programs didn’t see much success; the kids preferred to play ‘pickup’ baseball on their own in the streets and sandlots, even though they often had hand-me-down equipment.
American Legion baseball got its start in the 1920s, serving teenage boys. American schools started baseball programs, but pre-teen boys still didn’t have an outlet to play organized games.
A man named Carl Stoltz changed all that in 1938, when he decided to organize a baseball league for the boys in his hometown of Williamsport, PA.
Although Carl had no sons of his own, he often played ball with his young nephews, and he was eager to provide an organized program for them.
Neighborhood children joined Carl as he experimented with equipment and field dimensions through the summer of ‘38.
In 1939, things got more serious. Carl and his wife Grayce enlisted the help of brothers and their wives, and formed the first three teams: Lycoming Dairy, Lundy Lumber, and Jumbo Pretzel.
A board of directors was formed, and Carl met with community members to discuss the concept of providing a wholesome baseball experience for the boys of Williamsport. The name Little League was chosen for the program.
On June 6, 1939, the very first Little League game was played. The program’s success prompted other programs to spring up in the area.
It was decided that boundaries would be established to ensure each league could flourish without worrying about neighboring programs ‘raiding’ its players.
According to the Little League website, the program has become the world’s largest organized youth sports program, and in six decades, it grew from three teams to nearly 200,000, in all 50 U.S. states and more than 80 countries.
The program’s basic goal remains the same as it did in 1939: to give children of the world a game that provides fundamental principles of sportsmanship, fair play, and teamwork they can use later in life to become good citizens.