Dick Palmer, right, and Bill Shacklett are longtime Little League Baseball baseball coaches. Photos courtesy Shacklett's Photography
It had been one of those dreadful winters that we used to get here in Middle Tennessee — one when we seemingly had endless days of snow and ice.
In fact, that year the schools had used most of their snow days. The novelty of playing in the snow and being mesmerized by winter’s wonderland had long worn off.
Cabin fever was truly epidemic in Murfreesboro. My children Benton, 11, and Will, about 7, were going stir crazy. At last spring had arrived and the snow had melted.
We took advantage of the opportunity to go to the playground. Their bound-up energy was soon released by running and climbing and jumping from one apparatus to another. Benton began swinging back and forth on the monkey bars when out of the blue he exclaimed:
“Mom, can you smell it in the air?”
“What are you talking about? Smell what,?” I asked curiously.
“Baseball…I can smell it in the air!,” he pronounced jubilantly.
“Me, too,” chimed Will gleefully. “It’s my year to be pitcher, and I just can’t wait.”
It was at that moment I realized baseball had been woven into my children’s genetic profile and the transfer was complete. Being female, I simply could not identify. These feelings were beyond my understanding. How could these two little boys have become so passionate about baseball? How did they become so enamored with a game of swinging a bat and hitting a ball?
It was inevitable. This sport has been genetically implanted and has connected of my family for generations. My mother’s father, Grandpa Allen, had loved the game almost as much as he loved his family and God. He had played church league baseball for several years. Also, he had been an enthusiastic supporter of his local Twin Falls, Idaho, team, the “Cowboys.”
Repeatedly, I had been told of the story when had the opportunity to travel to Chicago to see the Cubs. My Mom had said that when he arrived in that stadium he declared, “I have died and gone to heaven!”
When my children were at the age to play baseball, my brother, Bill Shacklett, had been an avid fan and a Little League coach for more than 15 years. It was logical and understandable how my two young prodigies should acquire the baseball “fever.” These kids were hooked, and at that moment on that playground the warmth of the early spring day, I knew it was for life.
Baseball has always occupied an important place in American life. Apparently, this American pastime has had the ability to link generations of American sons, fathers, and grandfathers from the beginning.
It’s a game that connects and crosses culture, class, ideology and creed to unite us. While most cultures have had some sort of stick ball game, “cricket” being one of them, baseball is wholly the result of American ingenuity.
The game’s history is almost as complicated as the country that claims it. Although the origins of baseball are not known, most historians agree that the game evolved from the English game called rounders. New England colonists played a type of baseball called, “town ball” or “base.” There was one version played in the city and one by the farmers in the fields. As the story goes, even Revolutionary soldiers played baseball at Valley Forge. Up until about 1839, the game was popularized all across the country. However, it was played with very loose rules.
Throughout the early part of the 19th century, small towns formed teams and baseball clubs were organized in larger cities. Walt Whitman once prophetically announced, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game.”
Popular legend declares that a resourceful young man, Abner Doubleday, who would eventually become a hero at Gettysburg, sat down and drew the first rules for baseball. In 1845, a formalized list of rules by which a whole team could play was developed by Alexander Cartwright. Much of that original code is still played in the game today.
Cartwright is known as the, “Father of Baseball.”
The first recorded baseball contest was organized by Cartwright a year later at the Elysian Fields, a landscaped retreat of picnic knolls and scenic vistas in Hoboken, N.J. Cartwright’s Knickerbockers lost to the New York Baseball Club. These amateurs became more frequent and more popular. In 1857, a convention of amateur teams was called to discuss the rules and other issues. Twenty-five teams from the northeast sent delegates to this meeting. The following year, The National Association of Baseball Players was formed, and the first baseball league was formally organized. In its first year of operation, the league supported itself by occasionally charging fans for admission.
In the early 1860’s, the turmoil of the Civil War dropped the number of baseball clubs dramatically. The Union soldiers carried the game to the South and other parts of the country. When the war ended, more people were playing baseball than ever before. In 1868, the league’s annual convention drew delegates from more than 100 clubs which had been organized across the country. The league continued to grow and so did the expenses. Charging admission started to be more common. Teams often had to seek donations and sponsors to finance out-of-town trips. Winning became very important.
In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings formed the first completely professional team. Brothers Harry and George Wright recruited the best players from around the country and formed the National Association in 1871. The sport was well on its way for the American people to embrace the game as the “nation’s game. It truly is a game with a rich heritage reflecting who we are as Americans.
The years between 1949 and 1951, the Kiwanis Clubs of Murfreesboro spear headed the formation of the first Little League baseball program here. Former UT star and coach of the Blue Raiders, Joe Little, initiated the program, and at the time it was the best in the state.
Mr. Homer Jones, also known as “Mr. Little League” with his kindness and dedication, was a familiar face at the park organizing all the umpires. In the early years, names like Melvin Knight, Newby Freeman, Jack Goodrich, Gilbert Shearon, and Myers Parsons all were responsible in organizing a quality youth sports program that has continued for 64 years.
The dedication and commitment of those leaders inspired leadership in our community that has followed in youth sports down through the decades. Little League in Murfreesboro is wonderful! Fundamental life lessons have been taught year after year through in lives of other exemplary mentors like Dick Palmer and Bill Shacklett, who have coached cumulatively multiple decades.
In 1972, President and Chairman of the Board of Little League was asked, “What is Little League?” He responded, “Little League Baseball is a product of a happy, prosperous and free people who love their children and show pride in their every budding accomplishment. Though Little League is a basic platform under all of baseball, this is only a vehicle, an instrument of magnetic appeal, but no part of the main goal. Properly operated at the local level, Little League will speak for itself as a top drawer democratic youth movement which bespeaks discipline and builds spirit to win and inspires poise through physical well-being in millions of growing boys everywhere.”
Out of Little League baseball, come youth (both girls and boys these days) who learn and mature essential life lessons through this dynamic sport. As youngsters grow into self-reliant, disciplined adults who love their families and community, Little League baseball becomes an investment in our future. For then or now, what can be a more perfect ideal?
By the way this spring, I will have three generations involved in Little League baseball this year, my sons Ben and Will, my grandson Aidan, and of course, my brother Bill. Needless to say, grandparents (Poppy and Ga-Ga) will be in the stands cheering them on all season. That’s just what we do!