Going Batty for Spring

It was mid-March of 1962 when Mister Boomer and two of his neighborhood friends decided to try out for Little League Baseball. All the leaves were still brown, and the sky was gray on the day they would be tested. It looked like a November day rather than March, but that’s the thing about winter in the Midwest: it’s never over ’til it’s over. A crisp wind blew across the boys’ faces as they piloted their bikes to the try-out location.

There was already a big crowd of boys behind the backstop as they parked their bikes and went to the sign-up sheet. With coats, zipped high and fingers gloved, they waited until their turn at fielding and batting. Mister Boomer hated the idea of trying to play baseball in the cold. He’d have to remove his gloves to slip on the baseball mitt, and he knew one line drive in the pocket could send a frigid tingle up the arm. Batting was even worse. Each crack would sting his hands like the jolt of a live electrical wire. Nonetheless, he was determined to do his best.

After fielding — and flubbing — a few fly balls, line drives and grounders, Mister B was sent to the plate for his turn at bat. Six short pitches later, his try-out was finished. He had gotten a glove on almost all the balls hit his way, and successfully hit every pitched ball out of the infield. Now he’d have to wait to see if he’d make a team. His two neighbors did about the same, except the portly boy hit the ball a little higher and farther.

Little League was a big deal for young men. It was the first chance they would get to test their mettle among a group of peers. It was, according to the Little League credo, instilling sportsmanship, fair play and teamwork into young minds. We didn’t care about all that. We just loved baseball and wanted to play. As it turned out, Little League in the 1950s and 60s was much more than that.

Carl Stotz is credited with establishing the first Little League teams in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1939. By the 1950s, his organization had grown beyond the borders of the U.S., and the official organization had, for the first time, professional business people and government officials on their board of directors. Mr. Stotz fought constantly with the board, wanting to keep more control over every aspect of the organization, from rules of the game that he had written to the expansion of franchises, but the board stymied him every step of the way. Finally, by the mid-50s, Carl Stotz was embroiled in a legal battle with his own organization that was now being wrenched from his hands. Ultimately, he set up a rival league, composed of the first three teams of his original organization, and went about recruiting Little League teams to defect. By 1956, after numerous legal battles, Mr. Stotz was forced to capitulate. He agreed to drop his rival league and opposition to the board if three conditions were met; first, the organization had to remain headquartered in Williamsport; second, he insisted on more representation for field volunteers; and third, he did not want to be contested as the founder of the Little League Baseball program.

It seems Mr. Stotz was not all that paranoid about the infiltrators of his fun, recreational organization for boys. Some of the biggest names of the day were seeing Communists at every turn, and now saw Little League as a tool to mold impressionable minds into the American Way of Life. None other than J. Edgar Hoover himself sat on the board of directors, along with prominent business people who recruited conservative sponsors for the League. Herbert Brownell, Jr., then the Attorney General of the United States, summed up the feeling of the day in the Little League World Series Official Program of 1954. He wrote, “The young Americans who compose the Little League will prove a hitless target for the peddlers of godless ideology.”

By the mid 60s, there were nearly 7,000 leagues chartered worldwide, spreading the baseball diplomacy of Americanism to all parts of the globe. Today, Little League Baseball is played in all 50 states and in 80 countries. There are nearly 200,000 teams. But Mister Boomer and his neighbors didn’t know anything about propaganda intent. They wanted to know if they made a team.

A week after the try-out, they rode their bikes to the city’s community center to see the posted lists of Little League teams on the wall. They combed through each team, searching for their names. Finally, one of the boys found his name on a team sponsored by a local furniture store. Mister B and the other boy’s name were not there. Only one of the three boys would play in Little League that year.

A year later Mister Boomer tried out again, and this time made it onto a team. He would play on that team for three years, racking up some respectable numbers, such as being one of the top base stealers of the local League, playing every position except catcher and pitcher, and having a career batting average over .400. He also helped set some records on the low end, when his team committed 26 errors in a single game. Six belonged to Mister B.

None of his acts on the diamond were as memorable as his first time at bat. Being one of the newbies on the team, he batted low on the roster. Yet, as luck would have it, the bases were loaded as he walked to the plate, hands sweating, as a chorus of “Please don’t strike out! Please don’t strike out!” ran through his helmeted head. The sidelines grew quiet as the first pitch came over the plate. The manager had signaled to take the pitch, and it was strike one. He gave the signal again, and ball one was outside. Then he gave Mister B the hit sign. The pitcher tossed the next one just where he liked it: a little outside and letter high on the jersey. Mister B whipped the bat around, a little late as was his custom at the time. The ball met the bat with a satisfying crack and it flew into right field, over the head of the unsuspecting fielder.

“Run! Run!” was the frantic call from the bench as he rounded first and headed for second. The fielder grabbed the ball and threw it in the wrong direction, committing the first of his team’s errors. As Mister B reached second base, his helmet shifted on his head and blocked his vision, causing him to trip and fall over the base. “Run!” came the call. He stood up and ran as fast as he could, not knowing where the ball was. Two errors more and Mister B was heading for home plate. With the help of the other team, he had just hit his first Grand Slam. Despite the requirement of the team reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and a pre-game prayer before each game, he was playing baseball. And that was all he wanted to do.

The Boomer Endangered Species List?

Mister Boomer recently came across some startling statistics that made him think about growing older. We all know the history of what our grandparents and parents witnessed in their lifetimes; yet now, it appears, it’s our turn to look back at things that were but are no longer, or at least may not be much longer.

The biggest example, of course, is the 45 RPM record. It was an invention released during the boomer years, and now doesn’t exist at all. Broadcast TV was in black and white when we were young, but then color broadcasting slowly began to take over. Now, if a movie or TV show is in black and white, it’s either ancient or for art’s sake. There are more examples, to be sure.

The startling news Mister Boomer came across, however, had to do with bowling. Truth be told, not many of us have given the sport that much thought through the years. It was something that always appeared to be there, from our early days on through. It was a regular part of our cultural lexicon. Ozzie Nelson went bowling (without his tie, no less!). Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were on a bowling team in a league. So were Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Bowling was just something the working class did. We even had a TV show called “Bowling for Dollars.”


Fred and Barney mix bowling with a commercial in the days before Flintstones vitamins.


This Brunswick commercial from 1961 shows how bowling had been advertised as a wholesome pursuit for boomers.

Mister Boomer did not join in any youth leagues during his Wonder Years, but his brother did. As a result, Mister Boomer often accompanied his brother to the local lanes where he went to practice. Mister Boomer was never a great bowler, but there was one day when the bowling gods smiled on his lane. Brother Boomer was a pretty good bowler, but on this particular Sunday, the strikes were flying. Eager for a second game, Brother B began with a strike. Mister Boomer stepped up and aimed at the pins. He released the black rubber ball and, after the familiar roll-rumble for a couple of seconds, watched as all the pins crashed down. Brother Boomer stepped up and rolled a second strike. Mister Boomer did the same. A third strike followed for his brother, and another for Mister Boomer. By this time, a small crowd had started to appear behind the boys. In the fourth frame, Mister Boomer’s brother smashed the pins like it was an everyday occurrence, much to the delight of the viewing gallery. Getting nervous from the onlookers, Mister Boomer took his time and did his best to concentrate. Boom! Four strikes in a row! Both Boomer Brothers were tied, but alas, it was not to be for Mister B. His streak ended at four, a personal best to this day. His brother, however, went on to number five, then six, then seven! The crowd went wild! But in the eighth frame, their glee subsided as he missed a strike by three pins. The crowd dissipated as the brothers finished their games.

Now there is news that bowling alleys that once took in 70+ percent of their revenue from league play have seen that revenue reduced to around 40 percent. In general, bowling attendance has dropped below that of previous decades. That explains the transformation of the “bowling alley” of our era to the “family fun center” that it is today. In Mister Boomer’s area, the bowling centers have gone so far as to drop the word “bowling” from their names altogether, though a couple still retain “bowl.” Most have gone upscale, with gourmet foods, redesigned interiors and prices to match. Those that have targeted families have been forced to present their venues as the ultimate place for children’s parties. One has to believe that Ozzie Nelson — family man that he was — might approve, but Ralph, Ed, Fred and Barney might prefer their bowling experience to be the male bonding experience they had enjoyed — without their wives and children.

It remains to be seen if the final chapters are being written on a sport that was so much a part of our youth. Who knows … the boomer generation may yet revive leagues, even if they only exist through a flat screen TV and a Wii console.

How about it, boomers? Do you still go bowling, or have your bowling bag and shoes been relegated to the garage or attic?