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With the Boys
Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture
By Gary Alan Fine
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1987 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Little League and the Adult Organization of Child's Play
Both critics and proponents agree that Little League baseball requires firm guidance of children. Although preadolescent sportsmen are not mere pawns strategically moved by their coaches, their behaviors are significantly constrained by adult desires. Many aspects of Little League baseball are structured by the demands and claims of adults—coaches, umpires, and parents—and this is where I start my discussion of preadolescent sport. I shall analyze the provisioning of resources, the structure of the setting, the formal rules of Little League baseball, and the position of adults in the game. Although Little League baseball is "play," it is play of a special sort—as similar to organized sport as to free-form activity.
Organized sport is not merely activity; it is situated activity. Indeed, most if not all human activity requires resources to permit it to occur properly. The more "organized" an activity, the more resources are required to bring it off. Adult-run preadolescent baseball leagues require an impressive array of provisions for all parties to be satisfied. These resources are largely gathered, organized, and dispersed by adults, with preadolescents having relatively little say in what should be done. Each league had an adult board of directors that oversaw its running and was charged with solving problems. Although these boards were composed differently in each league (some comprised all the coaches; some, committee chairs), in no league did players (or even ex-players) have a representative. No one was charged to speak for the boys. In each league it was assumed (no doubt correctly) that adults had the interests of the boys at heart, and further, it was assumed the adults and boys would have the same perspectives on what should be done, and when they didn't the adults were correct.
A key task in each league was to ensure the proper distribution of personnel. Some mechanism was needed to assign boys to teams and to see that these assignments were equal in number and relatively equal in age and ability. Since most leagues desire stable teams from year to year (except in Maple Bluff, where teams were picked anew each year), players on a team one year remained on that team until they reached age thirteen, when they were assigned to a league for older boys; this meant that some teams were likely to remain strong from year to year. Several leagues, recognizing this, used the model from professional sports in which the team with the worst record the previous year picked first in the draft. This implies a belief that teams in Little League should be relatively equal in ability. Determining the ability of players is, however, not an easy task. To this end, each league organized a tryout at which all preadolescent aspirants had to perform. At these occasions, organized and run by adults, every player had the opportunity to bat a pitched ball (thrown by either a veteran pitcher or an adult) and to catch a few balls hit or thrown toward him. As in any audition, the boy was "on stage" for a few minutes; what an adult could learn from this display was decidedly limited. Fortunately for coaches, this information could be bolstered by biographical material about the child, including reports from peers, and scouting information if the child had played on a Minor League team. Different coaches, of course, look for different attributes in making their judgments. The tryouts were designed to provide enough information so that coaches at the draft could choose boys to equalize their teams.
At the draft, coaches took turns choosing new boys for their teams. Most leagues had a rule that any team could have only a certain number of twelve-year-olds (typically eight of thirteen); this, too, was designed to ensure some measure of equity.
Of course, players were not the only resources to be provided. Each team needed at least one coach. This was by no means easy to achieve, as being a coach was perceived as demanding, both temporally and emotionally. At times, gentle pressure was required to recruit enough coaches. Then an informal system of socialization prevented these men from taking their tasks too seriously or not seriously enough. Occasionally this socialization did not work, and men were not invited back the following year—usually by their being "cooled out" rather than by being explicitly "dismissed." In addition the league had to recruit and reward umpires, grounds keepers, scorekeepers, announcers, and refreshment-stand operators. Each league handled this challenge differently, but each had to make decisions about obtaining this human capital. Since each league had a tradition on which to build, these decisions tended to be taken for granted, but this doesn't diminish the fact that decisions were necessary.
The Little League organization is tied into a network of other social institutions: schools, churches, families, governments, businesses. Although one rarely thinks of these other social institutions while boys play, they have their effects. One way in which the presence of these institutions is taken into account is through the timing of games and practices. Little League games are timed so as not to interfere with regular school or church time. With the exception of the Beanville League, leagues do not play on Sundays. The Beanville League, which schedules games on Sunday afternoons, is technically in violation of the official Little League rules. Fathers are not expected to alter their work schedules to coach their sons or to see them play. The integrity of the family is also supported by rules giving coaches the right to have their sons on their teams and (typically) keeping brothers together on the same team.
Businesses and government agencies are often approached for legitimacy, money, and other support. Many leagues invite local politicians to make an address or throw out the first ball on opening day. The warm symbolism proves to be appealing for both the politician and the league. Leagues frequently deal with local parks or recreational departments to ensure that they can use public land, either paying for it or agreeing to be involved with upkeep or improvements. On occasion, fire departments or police departments sponsor Little League teams. Likewise, local businesses are often approached to sponsor a team or to place advertisements in the league program, on the field itself, or on the back of players' uniforms. Local newspapers enthusiastically report the doings of these preadolescent sportsmen. As befits this patriotic, moralistic organization, close ties to government and business are seen as eminently justifiable. Further, they help provide subsidies so that individual parents need not spend as much on the material objects that Little Leagues need to function—bats, balls, bases, first-aid kits. Little Leagues are too large and require too much organization to permit the casual provisioning of resources found in informal games. One estimate (from Bolton Park in the late 1970s) was that it took $5,000 to run the league (and minor leagues) for a year. This suggests that the structure of the league cannot be entirely informal, no matter the implication of the rhetoric that children's sport should just be play.
The physical environment of any activity introduces both physical and social constraints. The physical constraints—such as not being able to run to catch a long fly ball through a chain-link fence—are very real (as players who have unintentionally attempted that feat can attest) but are generally sociologically uninteresting. Of more significance is the social control that the adult-selected physical setting imposes.
Little League diamonds encourage the involvement of parents and peer spectators. All five leagues had grandstands situated near the side of the field for the convenience of those observing the game. Three of the leagues (Sanford Heights, Bolton Park, and Maple Bluff) maintained concession stands to cater to those in attendance. Loudspeaker systems in three leagues (Hopewell, Sanford Heights, and Maple Bluff) also indicated that the environment was structured for the benefit of the fans. These public-address systems were used during the game to inform onlookers of who was playing, as presumably the game would have been less enjoyable as a spectator sport if the players were nameless and not individuals with histories, positions, and records. This social organization of Little League is both a cause and a result of the audience being seen as almost as important as the players. Little League games are organized as performance rather than play.
The playing arena, although ostensibly designed for the enjoyment, safety, and skills of the players, is arranged so that spectators can watch the game in comfort. The field is a staging area for a dramatic performance—with a front stage (the field), a back stage (dugouts), and seating for an audience (grandstands). While this arrangement may appear to be a miniature version of professional sports stadia, the two are not fully comparable. The Little League field is smaller and shorter than the adult diamond (sixty rather than ninety feet between bases). In addition, because of the proximity of the spectators to the action and because of the small social distance between the spectators and the participants, the impact of this setting is markedly different from that in our concrete colosseums.
In professional baseball the only sensory contact between the fan and the player is visual. A person seated in the grandstand cannot overhear the players in the field. Indeed, one can hardly decipher their emotions except when acted broadly (thus, baseball umpires are taught to use broad theatrical gestures in making judgment calls). In Little League baseball, the physical proximity of spectators to the game makes emotions visible, and the conversations of players can be heard. Spectators see players' emotions, not only because preadolescents are less constrained in their public performances, but also because they are more visually accessible.
This feature of the environment also applies to the spectators. Professional-baseball fans are an undistinguishable mass—typically not seen or heard as individuals—and as a result can get away with acting in ways that would be embarrassing if they were publicly identified. This anonymity does not exist in Little League baseball because of proximity and personal relationships—as the frequent criticism directed at parents attests.
The reality of Little League as a public spectacle means that the condition of the field is salient—it contributes to the satisfaction of the spectator. The field should duplicate the professional arena in its carefully manicured grass, straight, freshly limed foul lines, and newly turned base paths. One of the major problems with which adult officials must deal is grounds keeping. In some leagues (Bolton Park, Sanford Heights, Hopewell) adolescents receive a nominal wage to maintain the field; in others, parents or coaches "volunteer." The quality of this work is critically commented upon by the adults involved, although the condition of the field is of less significance to the players. One Sanford Heights father commented:
He's been playing in it for three years, and it's been fine, but this year they didn't keep the field up at all. Grass wasn't cut or nothing. Very poor maintenance on the field.... If you go over to Brooklyn Center, to Iten Field, for example, you'll see a perfectly maintained field.... Really good, and over in Richfield, too. Real good, compared to ours (parents interview).
This was attributed to organizational problems, favoritism in the choice of those hired, and to a paucity of financial support by the businesses and citizens of Sanford Heights. This father's criticism was that the field was not aesthetically pleasing; it lacked the immaculately prepared aura of the grassy expanses on which professional ballplayers exhibit their skills. Contrasting the field, even as maintained, with the streets, vacant lots, backyards, and open parkland on which the children of Sanford Heights played informal games (with the tacit blessing of their parents) demonstrates that players are not in physical danger from the lack of grounds keeping. This criticism suggests that the physical background is a salient part of the Little League baseball experience. The attitudes of coaches and parents—in all leagues—consisted of a mixture of envy and determination to fix up their own fields, the grass always being greener on the other town's field.
Why should this aesthetic component matter? Like a theatrical set design, the field provides for a desired definition of the interaction (Bennett and Bennett 1970), which reveals that Little League is based closely on a structural concordance with professional leagues. Observers of professional baseball note the flawless perfection of the baseball diamond, the classic, pastoral elegance of the green, brown, and white field (Novak 1976, 57). Little League baseball, with the same emphasis on the environment, indicates that even at this age the game is to be set in a man-made Eden.
Rules and Rulings
Like the environment, the official rules of Little League baseball are given by adults—not subject to change by preadolescent negotiation. Little Leagues are supposed to follow the rules provided by the national organization, and coaches and umpires must be knowledgeable about these rules and enforce them without exception. Players, although not expected to memorize the rules, are expected to be generally aware of what they are allowed and required to do; they must follow the directions of their coaches who do know the rules.
Each year the national organization provides updated rule books to each local league. For a game as simple as preadolescent baseball, these rules are extensive, filling sixty-two pages in 1984. The rules attempt to cover every contingency that might arise in play and provide a basis from which umpires can make decisions without incurring the wrath of coaches.
The fact that rules are deemed necessary reflects the competitiveness of Little League baseball. In children's informal games, such a formal set of rules is not necessary. Piaget (1962) notes of preadolescent marble playing that older children are able to negotiate the rules of the game, and this negotiation is seen as developmentally valuable (Devereux 1976). When children play informal games, this negotiation is continually evident: What should be done when the old jacket being used as second base slides from its originally designated spot? Is it fair to pitch to ten year olds as one pitches to twelve year olds? These issues, important to the structure of the game, are collectively determined by the participants.
In Little League, negotiation by players is unthinkable. The rules are the final authority—at least they are not allowed to be contested by the preadolescents. In fact, players rarely contest the rules with the umpires. Ball players occasionally dispute the judgment of the umpire on a particular call, but in all such situations the umpire overrules them, and the coach supports the umpire in telling his players not to argue about calls:
It is the final inning of a game which Furniture Mart is behind 12–3. The umpire calls a Furniture Mart player out at first base on a play in which he appeared to be safe—for the final out of the game. The players are surprised and angry at the call, and yell at the umpire. One says loudly: "You know where you can put that one"; another player yells: "You need Coke bottles" (for eyeglasses). Although their coach feels the call is a mistake, he tries to calm the team and tells them not to argue. The coach later blames the team for the loss and tells them that they should never blame the umpire (field notes, Hopewell).
Players are considered to have no "standing" to dispute but must abide by adult decisions.
However, adults have some leeway in negotiating rules. Besides the ultimate recourse of appealing to the local league or to the national organization, some give-and-take exists between coaches and umpires, and some umpires change their calls after a convincing argument by a coach—a fairness that unintentionally encourages this sort of dispute. One umpire made a call permitting a double play on an infield pop fly; the coach whose team the decision had gone against protested, and the umpire, after checking the rule book, reversed his decision (field notes, Beanville). On another occasion a coach convinced the umpire that a foul tip caught by the catcher could be counted as a third and final strike—even though this rule was not enforced by other umpires in the league (field notes, Hopewell). All thirteen coaches interviewed in Bolton Park and Sanford Heights agreed that there were cases when they would "discuss" a call with the umpire during the game:
Q: Do you think there are any circumstances where the coach should either argue or discuss a call with the umpire?
A: Oh, yes. If there is other than a judgment call. If it's strictly a rule violation, and they are definitely in error, you should discuss it. I think you should discuss it in a gentlemanly manner (coach interview, Bolton Park).
Q: Are there any circumstances in which the coach should argue with an umpire?
A: Oh yeah. I think it's expected. Yeah, I think you do. If they're wrong, and you know they're wrong, you try and convince them that they're wrong, and if they don't admit to it then you protest it. I think that's part of a manager's responsibility (coach interview, Sanford Heights).
Excerpted from With the Boys by Gary Alan Fine. Copyright © 1987 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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