The Power of Baseball
When ESPN airs the Little League International Baseball World Series every August, adults and children are mesmerized. Sports commentators report on 12-year-old boys (and sometimes girls) as if they are MLB superstars stepping up to the plate or taking the mound. A distraction from the oppressive dog days of summer, it brews sentimentality for simpler times in the minds of adults and ignites all-star dreams in the hearts of kids. The Little League World Series eclipses the inspirational quality of almost every other sporting event.
Started in 1939 in Williamsport, Pa., by Carl Edwin Stotz, Little League Baseball is the world’s largest youth sports organization. June 6, the date of the very first Little League game, marks its 75th anniversary. Within the first 10 years, it was incorporated and spread internationally. It’s a worldwide phenomenon that began with a dad, Stotz, playing a game of catch in the backyard with his sons.
In 1960 just over 13,000 people lived in Columbia County. Expanses of undeveloped land and horizons dotted with domestic animals clung to the county’s agricultural past. Metal antenna sculptures decorated the roofs of houses to improve television reception. Cable and satellite TV did not exist and ESPN was a twinkle in the eye of the future. Yet Little League dreams pulsed as surely then as they do now.
Opportunities to participate in team sports in the rural Georgia county were limited to those offered by the school system. Kids below the junior high level had to make do with forming ragtag teams with imaginative equipment. They played ball in pastures and created bases out of debris. “Ghost on first,” was a common assertion, usually followed by debates about the ghost’s progress around the bases. Disputes were settled by arguing, punching or quitting. Regardless, kids showed up the next afternoon, wounds healed and differences forgotten, naming bases, sharing gloves and catching fly balls. That’s the power of baseball.
Two men saw a need to harness that power. James Cason and George Hobbs decided someone needed to give boys the chance to chase their all-star dreams. The Martinez-Evans Little League (MELL) charter with Little League International was signed in 1962. Then the real work began. Local Little League organizations are fueled by volunteers. Getting misty eyed about baseball nostalgia and forming a baseball league are two different things. To jump-start MELL, they needed players. They needed coaches. They needed uniforms. They needed umpires. They needed equipment. They needed fields.
Baseball has long occupied the collective conscience of the American populace. The crack of the bat, the thud of a hardball on leather, the silent signs from the third base coach, the growl of the plate umpire, these hallmarks of the game make the pulse quicken. Fascination with statistics that tell more about a player’s failures than his successes has existed since the first pitch was thrown.
Songs like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” assert the yearn to sit in the bleachers and cheer for heroes. Poems like “Casey at the Bat” rejoice the game. Books such as Moneyball celebrate the science and mystery of the baseball diamond.
The aura of baseball favored Cason and Hobbs, who sat in the back of a pickup truck and signed up MELL’s first season of players ages 9 to 12. Two MELL teams competed that year against Augusta-area Little League teams. Cason and Hobbs solicited sponsorships from community businesses, secured land donations for fields, recruited parents to coach and maintain the fields, and raised money to support the newly formed Martinez-Evans Little League.
As the first teams of boys got older and news of MELL spread throughout the county, age divisions were added. When they aged out of Major League play (ages 9 to 12), the Junior League level for boys ages 13 to 14 formed. Following that, the Senior League accommodated boys ages 14 to 16. For those who wished to keep playing, the Big League served boys ages 16 to 18.
By 1970, the population of Columbia County grew to more than 22,000 residents, a whopping 66 percent increase since the 1960 census. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of people putting down roots rose nearly 80 percent. The county was growing and so was Martinez-Evans Little League. Attention turned to providing playing opportunities for younger age groups and for girls. A coach pitch league was added around 1976. Major League Fast Pitch Softball was added for girls. This was the flagship for fast-pitch softball in Columbia County, since slow pitch was played in the schools and other recreation leagues that had formed since the chartering of Martinez-Evans Little League.
Over the years MELL grew in terms of participants and needs. Cason and Hobbs were right there at the helm coaching, umpiring and developing boys into men. And they were behind the scenes. They constructed bleachers. They graded fields and cut grass. They installed fences, built bathrooms, laid sod, painted dugouts and sank poles for lights.
Their example is a lesson in citizenship, of what it means to selflessly contribute to the betterment of others. It wasn’t that they desired to create a fountain of major league players in Columbia County. They just wanted to give kids something to do, to keep them out of trouble and to encourage them to become major league people. Cason and Hobbs and wanted kids to develop on the field the characteristics—teamwork, sportsmanship, tenacity, self-discipline, physical well-being—that would bring them success off the field. Everything they did, and that MELL does now, fits Little League’s philosophy of community-based programs to create great people rather than just great ball players.
Running such an organization, even with the grunt work completed by volunteers, requires funds. Registration fees, sponsorships, concessions and fundraisers infused it with dollars to meet operating costs. Springing from the imaginations of residents of a rural county with an agricultural history was the annual Betsy Bingo event. After lining a field in a grid pattern, they sold each square. A cow, presumably Betsy, was led to the center of the grid. As the spring grass was very green and a cow has four stomachs to fill, Betsy commenced to wandering and grazing and grazing and wandering. Eventually nature required her to empty her stomachs into one of those grid squares. Whoever owned that plot won a portion of the proceeds. MELL kept the rest to help cover operational costs.
Martinez-Evans Little League has changed with the community, continuing to evolve to best serve the kids. The T-Ball division for 5- and 6-year-olds was formed in 1984. The softball league dissolved in the early ’90s, when schools, travel teams and other recreation leagues adopted fast pitch softball. Today, Wee Ball is available for 4-year-olds and girls can play on the baseball teams. Umpires are now paid.
Many of the fields used by MELL teams over the years have been swallowed by Columbia County’s dramatic growth in the latter half of the 20th century. The Wheatley Field complex, which was built on land donated by George Wheatley and housed a field dedicated to Cason, gave way to the Columbia Road Professional Park. Gibbs Field at the corner of Baston Road and Washington Road in Martinez, where the first teams played, is now a Circle K. The Circle K at the corner of Cox and Belair roads sits where Little Leaguers played on the Exchange Club field. The new Martinez Fire Department occupies property where Roberts Field was. Other fields, too, have come and gone.
These days, Little League games are played at Kelley Park and Crawford Creek Park. Crawford Creek Park is leased from the county, but Kelley Park is part of the legacy of generosity toward Martinez-Evans Little League. George Kelley donated the land on Petersburg Road with the stipulation that it would continue to be used by MELL for the play of Little League games. He built the first Senior Division field on the site, which was later named in his honor.
Like any organization that depends on volunteers to serve on the board, coach the kids, manage teams, umpire games and cheer from the bleachers, it has experienced dissent among those involved. The initial 1962 charter was allowed to lapse, though the reason is unclear. Martinez-Evans Little League was re-chartered in 1967. Board members walked out of meetings over disagreements in those early years. Parents and coaches and coaches and umpires locked horns. Volunteers sent to rake a field burned it instead and let the flames get out of control. Every fairytale has a dark side.
Yet, having passed the 50 year mark, the organization, now headed by Carroll Proctor in the role of board president, has proven its staying power, has proven the power of baseball to overcome odds. Eight to nine hundred children play in the league each spring. Echoing Martinez-Evans Little League’s founders, Proctor says, “We’re trying to build young men and young women out of kids. We’re run by people who absolutely love baseball. Coaches give their blood sweat and tears. They care about how those kids play and what they do in life.”
Distinguished Martinez-Evans Little League alumni abound. Several of the girls who played in the fast-pitch softball divisions received scholarships to play at the college level, as have many of the boys who have progressed through the Little League system. Jimmy Smith, retired Lakeside High School baseball coach, and Jimmy Lewis, current Harlem High School baseball coach, both played with MELL in the ’60s. Two other players from the early teams, Teddy Roberts and Benji Moore, later played minor league baseball. Todd Anthony Greene played MELL baseball in the ’80s and went on to a career as a catcher in Major League Baseball with the Anaheim Angels, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants.
Most MELL players, however, follow different career paths, becoming teachers, doctors, businessmen, lawyers, accountants, salesmen, entrepreneurs and even a national sensation—Dave Haywood of Lady Antebellum—played on Martinez-Evans Little League teams. MELL’s volunteer coaches, particularly in the upper age groups, have extensive experience with baseball. In the older divisions, it’s unusual to find a coach who hasn’t coached or played at the high school or college level. They’re teaching the kids the technical skills—throwing, hitting, catching, base running, fielding—that they need to play the game well. But it’s more important that the players acquire skills necessary to achieve in the years when the baseball diamond is a hazy nostalgic memory. “In my heart,” says Proctor, “I want to see kids having fun playing baseball and learning life lessons and growing up to be responsible adults. That’s truly what it’s all about.”
Proctor says, “The Little League World Series is the Masters Tournament of youth athletics.” Last August, MELL’s Senior League all-star team tasted the World Series thrill, but lost to Panama in the semi-finals. A few seasons after adopting softball divisions, a team won through district level, state level, and division level tournaments. In region level play they finished one win shy of advancing to the Little League World Series Fast Pitch competition.
The 1996 Major team won the Georgia State Tournament. And 2013 brought several noteworthy team accomplishments. MELL teams won the Senior League Southeast Region Championship, the 10- to 11-Year-Old Georgia State Championship, the Junior League District 6 Championship and the 11- to 12-Year-Old District 6 Championship.
It all began with two guys in the back of a pickup truck registering boys for those first two teams. They believed in the power of baseball to inspire people to rise above statistical failure. They possessed teamwork, sportsmanship, tenacity and self-discipline. Because of that, they’ve ensured that generations of Columbia County’s kids will have it too. This summer, when you escape the sweltering, humid days of August by watching the Little League World Series, think of Cason and Hobbs and remember that great accomplishments begin in your own backyard.
A tribute to James Cason was printed in the Columbia County News Times following his death in 1994.
When the young folks of this county
Had nothing decent to do,
Their errant ways brought shame on them
And upon their parents, too.
Mighty Cason picked up a bat
And stepped up to the plate.
“Do something for them now,” he yelled,
“Before it is too late.”
Words fell on deafened, hardened ears,
But also on a few
That says, “Hey! Mighty Cason,
I see it like you do.”
So the seeds of good were planted,
And they soon began to grow.
But many weeks and months went by
Before the fruit began to show.
It took a strong and happy home
To back him every day,
As he begged and toiled and sweated
For help along the way.
The Mighty Cason had his help
From family and from friends,
So he went ahead and did the job
When means didn’t meet the ends.
It took a lot of pleading
And appropriating, too,
But Mighty Cason stayed the course
And saw the battle through.
Baseball, softball, football, Scouts,
All girls and boys the same,
Came to know the “Mighty One”
And all revered his name.
When Mighty bats his final time
And the Master calls “Strike three,”
In the twinkling of a human eye
He will sit at God’s right knee.
He will coach a team of angels,
All young and good and bold,
From dugouts made of diamonds
And baselines paved with gold.
There’s a special place in heaven
For people like our James.
We know them when we meet them.
We can’t forget their names.
Our best to you, old faithful friend,
In Heaven may you rest
In lasting and eternal joy.
You gave your very best.