SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — The decades-long rift that separated Little League Baseball’s founder from his beloved program once seemed as wide as the distance from home plate to straightaway center field.
Those differences appear to have finally been put to rest.
More than 20 years after the death of founder Carl Stotz, his family has loaned artifacts to Little League’s museum that tell stories of how the most well-known youth sports organizations in the world came to be.
The first home plate, hand-carved by Stotz out of a piece of black rubber, used in the first Little League in 1939. The first catcher’s mask. The first first-base bag, sewn by Stotz’s sister.
“I don’t know if you can ever fully say that you’re healed from something that has lasted so long,” Little League president Stephen Keener said last week at a news conference announcing the new additions at the museum in South Williamsport. “What I would say is that we have a terrific relationship today with the Stotz family.”
A relationship slowly repaired especially over the last 15 years. A statue of Stotz was dedicated in 2001 on the grounds of the sprawling Little League complex, which is home to the World Series each August.
Keener called the family’s loan of memorabilia, and the museum exhibit, an important step.
“We’ve certainly come a long way,” he said.
Stotz’s daughter, Karen Stotz Myers, represented the family in announcing the exhibit at the renovated museum, which is scheduled to re-open in June. “I know that my father was really not bitter,” she said. “His main goal in his whole life was that boys get a chance to play baseball, and that happened.”
It certainly did.
According to Little League, more than 30 million people in more than 100 countries have played small ball. More than 170,000 teams just started swinging the bats this season.
It began with an idea by Stotz 75 years ago. The first pitch for the very first league was thrown the following summer on June 6, 1939, on a dusty diamond in Williamsport. Out of that first game, Little League grew in popularity.
With that popularity grew a need for financing. Little League became incorporated in the late 1940s, with a board of directors, legally taking it out of Stotz’s hands.
Simmering differences about the direction of the program came to a boil after Peter J. McGovern, a U.S. Rubber executive from Detroit, took over as the organization’s president in 1952.
A messy split spilled into the courts. Stotz severed ties with Little League in 1956, returning to his very first league — though a court order prohibited him from using the term “Little League” anymore. In the book, “Play Ball!” written by now-Little League vice president Lance Van Auken, Stotz Myers said her father settled out of court because he didn’t want to drag his friends into the legal entanglement.
Stotz, who later went on to serve as a tax collector, stayed in Williamsport, where he raised his family. He had many loyal, local supporters and hard feelings in the community lingered for decades.
While Stotz Myers said the rift did affect the family.
“For many years, Little League didn’t acknowledge that he was the founder,” Stotz Myers said after the museum news conference. “When my children started to play Little League (locally) their friends told them they were liars when they said (Stotz) started Little League.”
Stotz died in 1992. A new era of goodwill seemingly started in the late 1990s after current president Keener struck up a relationship with the family. At about the same time, Little League, which was now headquartered across the Susquehanna River in South Williamsport, was considering doubling its field for the World Series from eight to 16 teams, and building a second stadium.
Plans were made to erect a statue to honor Stotz. Though he never visited the current home of the World Series in South Williamsport, his wife, Grayce Stotz, dedicated the statue at the complex in 2001. Mrs. Stotz died in 2006.
Then, Little League decided to renovate its museum two years ago. In talking with Little League, Stotz Myers thought it was an appropriate time to share items in her father’s collection with the museum.
The room where Stotz’s memorabilia will be on display includes a black-and-white picture of Stotz, in front of a microphone at an on-field ceremony, with the caption: “The sole founder of Little League shapes the program.”
Grayce Stotz is honored too for her contributions to Little League. Among other items to be displayed include a whistle used by Stotz to call the first tryouts, and an early drawing of Little League’s keystone emblem.
Stotz Myers credited Keener and Van Auken with taking proactive roles in promoting her father’s legacy.
“Seeing the home plate, the base,” she said, “reminds me of how much Little League was, and still is, a family affair.”