The Little Leagues

A former news staffer on the Hartford couRANT, LORRAINE LEHAN HOPKINSis now a housewife in West Hartford, Connecticut.

That rugged little individualist who yesterday was hating knickers and straight-arming his best friend on a football field has been organized into battalions of anonymous little boys who take their orders from grownups and owe their allegiance to the team.

Look at one of those Little Leaguers, those Midget Football players, square in the eye, and you’ll find the worst has happened: he’s sold his independence for security at the age of ten. Exhorted by crowds, fed by publicity, clothed in impersonal uniforms, he has foregone the joys of the cheerfully unorganized, individual boy whose each summer day could be a little bit different from the one before.

The Little League summers have been with us some ten years now, and in my town we have already passed two Midget Football seasons. If there is anything more unprincipled than regimenting children’s summer, it is lining them up on autumn Saturdays, encased in leather and shoulder pads, to send them smashing into each other. The fact that accident insurance is carried on the youngsters doesn’t make the spectacle any less appalling.

A lot of Little Leagues are, for lack of money, rag, tag, and bobtail affairs, and it may be that an element of youthful imagination survives in these. Occasionally the system may break down, and the kids just play “move-up” and let it go at that.

But the league I know functions in its purest form, and I really rue the day when my son will try to make me a Little League Mother. For they take the Little League very seriously in my town. All the trappings, the hoopla, the ritual, the physical properties are present; and they are all faithful imitations of the big leagues. You really can’t tell the players without a score card. They all look alike — like little Mickey Mantles, I suppose. You would think somebody might at least have had the imagination to choose a uniform color other than battleship gray.

The season usually opens with a parade in mid-May. The boys march from the high school in the center of town for about a half mile to the immaculately kept Little League stadium, replete with bleachers, advertising on the field fences (but no breweries allowed), dugouts and, off to one side, as one mother put it, “a cute little bull pen.”

The Little Leaguers step along, somewhat self-consciously, to the tune of “Take Me out to the Ball Game,” an impossible thing to march to. The Little League players themselves are followed by the farm team members, who, having done poorly in preseason tryouts, settle for a berth in the bush league. They are distinguished from their betters by the lack of uniforms.

The parade is headed by grownups: the directors, coaches, and officers of the league, and — unless he can possibly avoid it — the mayor of the town. He is needed to toss the first ball.

And then the game begins; the players no longer children on a halfimagined diamond (where somebody’s old shirt does for home plate) but ridiculously miniature adults awaiting their turns in miniature dugouts, or scowling fiercely in the batter’s circle, or swinging three bats, or stepping up quickly to shake the hand of the man who just clobbered a four-bagger (the little punk), or doffing a cap to the cheers from the bleachers, or making expert chatter (that dreary “Hey boy, hey boy, no hitter here”), or just being an all-round deadly serious Little Leaguer.

That’s the point. No boy ten years old should take himself seriously. Utter lack of humor is probably the most distressing aspect of the system — it is all so earnest. But of course why shouldn’t it be, when there is so much at stake: cheers, trophies, titles, and newspaper headlines. And if you get to be a real whiz, why there’s your picture in the paper, right there on the same page with Stan the Man and Ted the Kid.

The striking thing about all this imitation of grown-up behavior is that the Little Leaguers are really no longer children in a child’s world of spontaneity and genuine responses, a world of magic and makebelieve.

The Little League is like a long, dreary dress rehearsal of children acting out roles which grownups have not only assigned but, worse still, have written. So the summer is a show, whether the grownups turn out for the games or not, for the league is artificially imposed and stupidly stylized.

In my town, the grownups do turn out, mothers and fathers dragging with them the rest of the family. Why any Little Leaguer’s sister would consent to witness this outrageous display of male supremacy is beyond my comprehension. For this orgy of “togetherness” revolves solely around the young male of the family, and in all of this there is not a crumb for his sisters.

And even if none of these things were true, I’d still go on quarreling with the Little Leagues. At least until they let little girls in.