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SideLines: Little League's illustrious alumni

Published: Tuesday, June 24, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

You probably couldn't tell by looking at us, but Brad Pitt and I have something in common. (No, it has nothing to do with Angelina Jolie.) It's something we share with millions of other people – we all played Little League baseball.

Little League celebrated its 75th anniversary on June 6. D-Day shares the same anniversary, but Little League began five years earlier, and with much fonder memories.

Little League baseball is as American as a Norman Rockwell painting or Grandma’s apple pie. It is as much a part of summer as a clear blue sky on a sunny day, the smell of a freshly mowed lawn, and a night at the drive-in. It is as much a part of growing up – and just as exciting – as getting that first smile from a pretty girl.

When I was young, all there was during the summer was Little League and swimming. We didn't have travel teams or park district programs like they do today. At that time no one had ever heard of soccer, much less pickleball. We just had baseball, back when it was still America's national pastime. Today, baseball has fallen behind the times, a sport, like many of us who once played it, that’s showing its age.

Little League baseball officially began in Williamsport, a little town in Pennsylvania, on June 6, 1939, when a man named Carl Stotz convinced three local merchants to provide caps, uniforms and equipment to field three teams of boys. (Although a girl broke through the ranks in 1950, girls were unfairly banned from playing until a 1974 lawsuit allowed them in.) Stotz said he wanted to teach young boys, starting with his nephews and their neighborhood friends, about fair play and teamwork.

Just for the record, Lundy Lumber walloped Lycoming Dairy 23-8 in the first Little League game ever played. However, in the great American spirit, the Dairy boys came back to claim the first championship.

It wasn't until 1947 that Little League expanded outside Pennsylvania, crossing the state line into New Jersey. Today, there are over 2.8 million youth in 200,000 Little League organizations in 80 countries around the world.

Famous baseball stars who played Little League over the years include hall of famers Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, Cal Ripkin Jr., George Brett, Carl Yastrzemski, Robin Yount, Mike Schmidt, Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux.

Add to that list current Yankee star Derek Jeter, who will definitely join the others in the hall as soon as he is eligible.

Other professional athletes you may not immediately equate with baseball, but it's not surprising to learn they played. I’m referring to football legends Peyton Manning, Mike Ditka and Troy Aikman; basketball greats Michael Jordan, Bill Bradley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: NASCAR driver Austin Dillon; and four-time NHL all-star Jason Marquis, who played Little League in Canada.

Besides Pitt, the list of actors who played is also pretty impressive, including Tom Selleck, Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell and Ben and Casey Affleck.

Some stars you might not expect to have played baseball include rock star Bruce Springsteen, pop singer Huey Lewis, country singer Carrie Underwood, actor Danny DeVito, and authors Dave Barry and George Will. George W. Bush is the first former Little Leaguer to be elected president of the United States, while Dan Quayle was the first to become vice president.

Some other former Little Leaguers are Steve Danekas, Ray Reineck, Craig Reineck, Ron Dicus, and Greg Lower. Those are some of the kids I played with. They may not be famous, but they played just as hard and seriously as those who are, which is part of what makes a sport like baseball great.

It's quite an illustrious group.

I may have only played one year, but I'm proud to be a part of Little League, which has changed a lot since I played. Little League was a fun and memorable time in my life, one I hope every youngster – boys and girls – gets to experience now and for the next 75 years.

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