Sports Nut

Presumed Innocent

The bogus nostalgia for the lost days of Little League.

As far as anyone knows, none of the ballplayers at the Little League World Series is actually a hot-dogging high-school ringer on ‘roids. This year’s boring tournament is a Danny Almonte hangover. But the relative tranquility hasn’t kept the sportswriters from fuming about the decline and fall of baseball boyhood. Yesterday’s New York Times, for example, reported ominously “Little League Innocence Fades in TV Glare.”

With ABC and ESPN spending more than $7 million for the broadcast rights to the series, the Times complained, the sensitive little tykes now spend their time giving interviews instead of taking batting practice or, better yet, making new friends. They can’t even cry off-camera anymore! Back in the good old days, “there weren’t five satellite television trucks” camped out behind the ballpark and “[e]leven- and 12-year-olds were not considered major box office draws.”

But Little League’s innocence, if such a thing ever existed, faded a long time ago. In 1948, the United States Rubber Co. (maker of Keds and Uniroyal tires) bought the sponsorship rights to what was then a small rec program in Pennsylvania, and the league has been a PR juggernaut ever since. That year, the World Series was called the Keds’ National Little League Tournament, and the players wore jerseys with the words “U.S. Keds” and “U.S. Royals” stamped on the chest. The boys, it turns out, have been boffo from the beginning.

Take the story of Joey Cardamone, star catcher of the 1948 champions, the Lock Haven All-Stars. Joey became a Little League folk hero because he graciously shook hands with two St. Petersburg, Fla., players as they crossed the plate after hitting home runs in the tournament final. A charming display of youthful innocence? Absolutely, and that’s why the sponsor put it on film. An estimated 80 million Americans saw footage of the handshakes in a movie trailer (brought to you by U.S. Rubber) about Little League. The newsreel was even translated into Japanese and showed in Japan.

ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 will show more games (35) this year than ever before, but the difference is only one of degree. This kind of media attention is a Little League tradition. Throughout the 1950s, boys’ baseball was standard radio fare. Local stations aired regular-season games, and network affiliates across the country carried the postseason action. Little Leaguers appeared in countless newsreels. The annual awards ceremony sometimes happened twice, once for real and once—in better light—for the cameras. ABC started televising the championship game way back in 1960. The intensity of ESPN’s coverage reflects the glut of air time in the age of cable, not a new willingness “to make unpaid, unwitting commercial endorsers out of schoolchildren who still have a bedtime.”

If media-made youth sports dates back 50 years, so does all the hand-wringing about it. Change the details and the Times lament sounds a lot like the host of exposés that appeared in the 1950s, culminating in a 1957 Sports Illustrated two-parter about “the epic war over the league’s merits.” Back then, reports of Almonte-esque impropriety abounded. A coach in Allentown paid his best players with fancy jackets and a free trip to New York. Overbearing parents encouraged their sons to break the rules. Spectators in Utica were betting on Little League games. Surely, this is not an experience we wish we could recapture.

Like U.S. Rubber in the 1950s, ABC and ESPN drown the kids in attention because cute sells. Little League World Series games don’t draw better ratings than your average Brewers-Padres game because the quality of play is better. They draw well because watching young ballplayers emulating their favorite major leaguers tugs at the heart strings. And because people are suckers for crying kids.

“It’s about the experience and the competition,” a producer working on the series told the Times. “It’s pure. It’s almost innocent.” Little League’s PR people have been trying to get this message across since the Truman administration. The bogus nostalgia for innocence proves just how well the tactic has worked.