The Biggest Little Game
Little League baseball was started in 1939 in Williamsport by local businessesman Carl E. Stotz as a way to get boys outside in the fresh air. It has since grown to over 2.4 million participants (girls included since 1974), from ages four to sixteen, playing in all fifty U.S. states and in eighty countries. The Little League Baseball World Series—which is limited to players in the ten-to-twelve age range—began in 1947 at the “Original Field” on 4th Street, a field still in use today. The series was there until 1959, when it was moved to the current seventy-two-acre site in South Williamsport that includes two stadiums—Lamade and Volunteer—the Little League administration offices, and the Little League Baseball Museum, which is, by the way, a must-see for fans of the sport. Both stadiums seat nearly 3,000 each, with the hillside past the outfield fence at Lamade easily accommodating 30,000.
The competition to get to the series starts in early June as nearly 6,500 teams worldwide play throughout the summer until only sixteen—eight U.S. and eight international—remain. These, then, are the teams that spend the last two weeks of August in Williamsport, fighting for the right to call themselves “World Champions.” Travel expenses are completely covered; accommodations for players are at The Grove, a private housing complex next to the two stadiums where the players live and spend nearly all their time with each other.
The sixteen teams are split into two brackets and the twenty-seven-game tournament begins. Teams are eliminated from contention after two loses, but consolation games are played to ensure each team plays at least three games.
An event that began two years ago has given the series even higher levels of exposure. Major League Baseball knew that it was important to get the younger set to help the sport grow. So, in 2017, came the first Little League Classic—a regular season MLB game played in Williamsport during the Little League World Series. The game is held at Bowman Field, which is the home of the Williamsport Crosscutters, a Class A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.
The week before the game, a crew comes in and transforms Bowman Field from a Minor League ballpark to a Major League field, complete with bullpens. The game has quickly become the “toughest ticket in baseball” due to the fact that tickets are not for sale. All 3,000 +/- Little League players, coaches, and families in town for the series get complimentary tickets. The other 500 are given away in a local lottery to anyone living in Lycoming County. In 2017, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the inaugural LLC, beating the St. Louis Cardinals 6-3. The New York Mets defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 8-2 last year. This year the third annual LLC will be on Sunday, August 18, with the Pittsburgh Pirates playing the Chicago Cubs. Pre-game, the players from both teams spend the day with the Little Leaguers at the complex, watching them play and offering advice.
More than a few future MLB players have come through the ranks via Williamsport and the Little League World Series. Those include Boog Powell (1954 LLBWS) who, along with Jim Barbieri, became the first LLBWS players to play in the MLB World Series; Ed Vosberg (1973 LLBWS), Jason Varitek (1984 LLBWS), and Michael Conforto (2004 LLBWS) became the first three to also play in the college World Series and MLB World Series. In 2015, the Mets’ Todd Frazier (1998 LLBWS) became the first to win the MLB Home Run Derby.
Other Little Leaguers have grown up to be celebrities in various walks of life. One of those is NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Driver and 2018 Daytona 500 Winner Austin Dillon. Austin played second base for Southwest Forsyth County in the 2002 Little League World Series.
“I got whooped when I got there,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time with a team at a young age, at twelve years old, playing baseball. We had two-a-day practices and all kind of stuff, which taught me a lot about teamwork. I still talk to some of the guys from the Little League team. One of my best friends to this day, Robbie Scott, was our shortstop on our team and we’ve been friends ever since. To see those guys, and every now and then, to get them out to a race is fun. I enjoyed that experience. My family has always been pretty big into racing. My grandfather [Richard Childress] is usually really busy with his commitments at the racetrack, but he came to cheer me on at the Little League World Series, which was pretty awesome and meant a lot.
“You are out there with the best of the best all over the United States,” he continues. “I was a fan of Harold Reynolds, the announcer, so I got to meet him and be a part of that.”
Two out of the last three years the Little League World Series has been won by USA teams. In 2016 it was the team from Maine-Endwell, near Binghamton, that beat the Asia-Pacific team 2-1, and in 2018 Honolulu defeated South Korea 3-0.
The 2019 LLBWS begins on Thursday, August 15. Admission to the games is free. For more information visit littleleague.org.
See you at the ballpark!