I grew up on the Southwest side of Chicago in the 1970s, and played baseball in the Little League run by our town's park district. It was a large suburb, there were tons of kids and it had to be quite an undertaking. The start of the season was a big deal; every kid from every team got to wear their uniform and parade down 95th Street. I loved it because we would pass by an old army tank, and it made me feel patriotic.
Looking back on it now, I'd have to say it was a very well-run organization. There were so many kids that even for the same age group, there was more than one level or "league," and each level had plenty of teams. Yes, there were multiple fields in multiple parks throughout town, but it still had to be a scheduling nightmare.
The official name of the organization was Oak Lawn Baseball for Boys. For a long time, that was a perfectly acceptable name. I believe it was in 1975 when that name became quite controversial.
There was a big push for girls to be allowed to play little league, and to change the name of the organization. I'm sure the parents of the kids my age would remember all the details much better than I, but the players were aware of it. Anyway, there was a girl in my league by the following year. Of course it was a hot topic, and we didn't believe a girl could compete at our level, but we didn't really care as long as the season started on time.
In a previous post, Baseball in the 70s: Little League, Fast Pitch and Harry Caray, I detailed how playing fast pitch on the side of a local school really helped me learn how to pitch and hit. So I was 12 in a league for 10, 11 and 12 year olds, and I was large for my age. After years of playing fast pitch every day, I was one of the fastest pitchers in the league. The catchers used to put little sponges or dish washing pads inside their mitt to soften the impact. I was accustomed to striking a lot of guys out; usually only one hitter per team gave me trouble.
The first time I faced "the team with the girl" that season, I pitched well, even getting their best hitter out. I was distracted facing her, though. Not because she was a girl, or I was afraid to hit her with a pitch or anything. The way she took practice swings and stood in the batter's box, it was obvious she could hit. I watched her in the field, and she could throw and catch, too. She was better than half the boys on her team.
What made it distracting was the large amount of vocal family and friends that came out to support her. We were used to somebody, each game, from our team or theirs, having a big group come out to cheer. This was different; they weren't just cheering for her, but for the rights of girls to play baseball just like the boys. I didn't have a problem with that; if she was in our league and wanted to be treated equally, I would pitch to her accordingly. I didn't ease up one bit, and probably threw a bit harder to her than most. I liked striking her out and quieting her contingent.
The second time we played that team, she had greatly progressed. She had more confidence, batted higher up in the order and her contingent was larger and louder. I think I struck her out the first time I faced her, but it was a long at bat and she made solid contact consistently. Later in the game, her team was threatening when she came to the plate. I was bound and determined to strike her out to end the inning. I reared back and threw as hard as I could, and she crushed it.
She hit that ball farther than anyone I ever faced. The park we were playing in didn't have any fences, so there was no "automatic" home run. The poor outfielder had to run after the ball, and I think he picked it up somewhere in Indiana.
Her friends and family went nuts: They jumped up and down, clapping and cheering like it was the end of the world. And in a way, it was.
All I could think was "Welcome to Oak Lawn Baseball for Kids."