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Who Invented T-Ball?
“I won’t be happy until we have every boy in America between the ages of six and sixteen wearing a glove and swinging a bat.”
On May 6, 2001, the Capitol City League Rockies and the Satchel Paige League Memphis Red Sox of the Washington, DC area took the field to play each other in a t-ball game. What made this t-ball game different from any other game was the fact that it was played on the South Lawn of the White House. President George W. Bush started this t-ball game on the South Lawn to promote the health and fitness of young people and show respect for the game of baseball. This is probably my favorite activity produced by the US government. No debate, no filibustering, no veto or override. Just t-ball baseball where presidents walked around thinking about decisions that would change the world. When I drive past an empty baseball field in my car on a nice day, I always think to myself, what a waste. A beautiful field, empty with no one in it. Now we have a tradition every year on the White House lawn. You don’t have to be a Democrat, Republican, or Independent to see that this is a bipartisan issue, and a good one at that. How did the game of t-ball get from obscurity to the White House lawn? Well, the origin of t-ball has several different stories.
One theory is that Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey is the creator of the actual batting shirt model. Always a forward thinker for his team and the sport of baseball, Branch Rickey helped create the minor league system and was involved in the creation of the batting helmet. He allegedly introduced a flexible sleeve that came from a car engine radiator hose. Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and other Dodgers are said to have honed their skills on this man-made shot. This may have been the original model for others who claimed to have invented and organized the game of t-ball.
The actual organizing of t-ball as an activity has been claimed by numerous people and locations across the country. The city of Warner Robins, Georgia was one of the first, if not the first, to have an organized t-ball league. Claude Lewis, director of the Warner Robins (Ga.) Recreation Department, founded the t-ball league in March 1958. According to an interview he gave, about 100 parents came to Claude looking for some type of baseball activity for younger children. Claude claims to have set the rules and helped spread the game of t-ball around the world, even flying to England and Israel to introduce the game to other countries and teach them how to play t-ball. I was lucky enough to speak on the phone with Claude’s daughter, who makes these calls for her elderly father. Marie was kind enough to spend time going over how Claude Lewis got involved in t-ball. Interestingly, Claude’s high school baseball coach in the mid-to-late 1940s had his team hit balls from wooden planks into the school bleachers. Claude remembered that, and, in his own thoughts, or perhaps he had heard of what Branch Rickey had done with the hose from the car’s radiator, developed a shell. When it continued to break, he inserted something into the inside of the intestine. His friend, a welder, helped him refine it to his liking, making it easy to transport. Claude Lewis was a man who was always looking for innovations for sports. He was invited to the White House to witness t-ball activities on the South Lawn of the White House and met with President George W. Bush.
Another theory about the origin of t-ball credits Dayton Hobbs, who got the idea after noticing groups of young kids enviously watching his 14- and 15-year-old team practice. dr. Hobbs was the principal of an elementary school in Baghdad, Florida, near Pensacola. He had been coaching baseball since the 1950s, so he decided to organize a game for young children by having them hit the ball off the ball. Not only is dr. Hobson trademarked the Tee Ball and wrote the first Official Baseball Rulebook for the Tee Ball.
Another theory claims that in Starkville Mississippi, two Rotarians, Dr. Clyde Muse and WW Littlejohn, added t-ball to their town’s summer program to help keep younger kids busy with the activity. Because of the highly successful Babe Ruth League involving over 300 children, in 1960 both Dr. Muse and Professor Littlejohn were desperately trying to come up with a modified baseball game that children would love and play successfully. The story goes that dr. Muse was in Professor Littlejohn’s office and started writing the rules on how to play t-ball. They decided that it didn’t make sense to have a pitcher’s pitcher for really young kids, and that it would be better for players to hit a static ball because the kids would have more success and allow for faster development. They then presented the rules to the Starkville Junior Baseball Association and they endorsed the game and the rules and in the summer of 1961 t-ball began in Starkville Mississippi.
Finally, in Albion, Michigan, t-ball is said to have been created by coach Jerry Sacharski. He was a baseball coach who invented the game in the summer of 1956. I called and spoke with one of his children, Mike Sacharski, who told me some great facts about his father. Mike told me that his dad created this program because the brothers of the kids on the teams wanted something to do in their youth. It has equipped the game for youngsters between six and eight years old. It was originally called Pee Wee Baseball. Coach Jerry Sacharski wanted to teach kids the basics of regular baseball and couldn’t bear to turn real young kids away from playing baseball because of their age. Mike told me that at first his dad just wanted the kids to learn the basics of fielding, pitching and base running. Hitting was just thinking. Coach Jerry Sacharski considered having the umpire throw the balls out as if they had been hit. It quickly evolved into the kids hitting the ball with a putt that was procured from a neighboring town in Michigan. Jerry would go down to the hardware store and try to perfect the tee so it was easier to transport. Frank Passic, who is the Albion historian and played t-ball in 1960, talks about how they played a televised Michigan State University game. Mike Sacharski also explained how his family has never gotten into any kind of battle over the origins of t-ball and considers his father the “Pioneer” of the game.
I guess we’ll never know the real inventor of organized t-ball. It appears to have been played in Canada in the late 1950s and early 1960s before gaining more popularity here in the United States. One is sure. Dayton Hobbs registered the trademark “Tee Ball” with the United States government in the early 1970s.
It’s amazing how far the batting shirt has evolved, if it started with Branch Rickey’s original invention of his rubber engine hose. If you ever go to a major national baseball clinic, you are sure to see new batting shirts in their showroom that are advertised as the latest mousetrap that can turn a 250 hitter average into a 400 average. If you search the internet and baseball catalogs, you will see an endless number different types of batting shirts. There are the ones that seem to be the most popular, which are black and have a single rubber adjustable post. Then there are nipples that have movable locations for the rubber post. There are also some that now have an “arm” that sticks up to help you adjust your swing the correct way. Then there are t-shirts that have an automatic feeder. So instead of hitting the baseball off the tee and putting another ball to replace it, the machine will do it for you. Instead of spending $25 or $35 for a basic batting tee, you now have the option of spending up to $300 for a putter batting cat.
It doesn’t matter who invented organized t-ball. Tee Ball remains one of the most popular organized leagues in the world with thousands of boys and girls participating each year!
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