“I will not be happy until every child in America between the ages of six and sixteen wears a glove and swing a bat.”
On May 6, 2001, the Capitol City League Rockies and Satchel Paige League Memphis Red Sox from the Washington, DC area took to the field to play each other in a game of t-ball. What made this t-ball game different from any other game was the fact that it took place on the South Lawn of the White House. President George W. Bush launched this ball game on the south field to promote youth health and fitness and to show appreciation for the game of baseball. This is probably my favorite activity produced by the United States government. No debate, no filibusters, no veto or annulment. Just t-ball baseball right where the presidents walked contemplating the decisions that would change the world. When I drive through an empty baseball field in my car on a beautiful day, I always think to myself, what a waste. A beautiful field, empty and without anyone. Now we have a tradition every year on the White House lawn. You don’t have to be a Democrat, Republican, or Independent to realize that this is a very good, bipartisan issue. How did the game of t-ball from darkness get onto the White House lawn? Well, the origin of t-ball has a few different stories.
One theory has Brooklyn Dodgers great owner Branch Rickey as the creator of the actual model from which the batting jersey is made. Branch Rickey, who was always thinking about the future of his team and the sport of baseball, helped create the minor league system and was involved in the creation of the batting helmet. He allegedly introduced a flexible batting jersey that came from the radiator hose of a car engine. Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and other Dodgers were said to have honed their skills on this man-made batting tee. This may have been the original model for others who claimed to have invented and organized the game of t-ball.
The actual organization of t-ball as an activity has been claimed by numerous people and places 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 (Georgia) Recreation Department, formed a t-ball league in March 1958. According to an interview he gave, about 100 parents came to Claude to demand some kind of baseball activity for their children. More smalls. Claude maintains that he established the rules and helped spread the game of t-ball around the world, including 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 with Claude’s daughter on the phone, who answers these calls for her elderly father. Marie was kind enough to spend time analyzing how Claude Lewis got involved with t-ball. Interestingly, Claude’s high school baseball coach in the mid-to-late 1940s had his team hit balls with wooden planks in the school bleachers. Claude remembered this, and from his own thoughts, or perhaps he had heard of what Branch Rickey did with a car’s radiator hose, he developed a batting jersey. When it kept breaking, he inserted something inside the hose. His friend, a welder, helped him refine it to his liking, making it easy to transport. Claude Lewis was a generous man who was always looking for innovations for sport. 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 of the origin of t-ball credits Dayton Hobbs, who came up with the idea after noticing groups of young children looked enviously at his 14- and 15-year-old team practicing. Dr. Hobbs was an elementary school principal in Baghdad, Florida, near Pensacola. He had been a baseball coach since the 1950s, so he decided to host a game for young children by having them hit the ball off the batting tee. Not only was Dr. Hobson awarded the Tee Ball trademark, but he also wrote the first Official Tee Ball Baseball Rule Book.
Yet another theory claims that in Starkville Mississippi, two Rotarians, Dr. Clyde Muse and WW Littlejohn, added the game of t-ball to their town’s summer program to help keep younger children busy with an activity. Due to a very 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 young children would like to play successfully. The story goes that Dr. Muse was in Professor Littlejohn’s office and began writing rules for how the game of t-ball was to be played. They decided that having a pitcher that threw really young children was pointless, and that it would be better if the players hit a stationary ball because the children would be more successful and allow for faster development. They then presented the rules to the Starkville Youth Baseball Association and they endorsed the game and the rules and in the summer of 1961, t-ball started 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 came up with the game in the summer of 1956. I called and spoke with one of his sons, Mike Sacharski, who gave me some interesting facts about his father. Mike told me that his father created this program because the siblings of the boys on the teams wanted to do something at a young age. He prepared the game for young people between the ages of six and eight to play. At first it was called Pee Wee Baseball. Coach Jerry Sacharski wanted to teach kids the fundamentals of regular baseball and couldn’t bear to have real little kids stop playing baseball because of their age. Mike told me that his father initially just wanted the kids to learn the fundamentals of fielding, pitching, and running. Hitting was just an afterthought. Coach Jerry Sacharski considered the referee throwing the balls onto the field as if they were hit. It quickly turned into kids hitting the ball with a batting tee from a neighboring Michigan town. Jerry would go down to the hardware store and try to perfect the batting tee, to make it more portable. Frank Passic, who is a historian in Albion and played t-ball in 1960, recounts how they played a game at Michigan State University that was broadcast on television. Mike Sacharski also explained how his family never engaged in any kind of battle over the origins of t-ball and considers his father a “Pioneer” of the game.
I guess we’ll never meet the real inventor of the 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 thing is certain. Dayton Hobbs registered a “Tee Ball” trademark with the United States government in the early 1970s.
It’s amazing how far the batting jersey has evolved, if it started with Branch Rickey’s original invention of the batting jersey from his rubber motor hose. If you ever go to a major national baseball clinic, in their display area you are sure to see new batting tees touted as the newest mousetrap that can turn a hitter’s 250 average into a 400 average. The internet and in baseball catalogs, you will see endless different types of batting jerseys. There are the ones that seem to be the most popular, which are black and have a single adjustable rubber post. Then there are the batting jerseys that have movable locations for the rubber post. There are also some that now have an “arm” that is raised to help you adjust your swing in the right way. Then there are the tees that have an automatic feeder. So instead of hitting the baseball off the tee and putting another ball in to replace it, the machine will do it for you. Instead of spending $ 25 or $ 35 for a basic batting jersey, you now have the option of spending up to $ 300 for the batting jersey with a feeder.
It doesn’t really matter who invented organized t-ball. Tee Ball continues to be one of the most popular organized leagues in the world, with thousands of boys and girls participating each year!