“I won’t be happy until we have every kid in America between the ages of six and 16 wearing a glove and hitting.”
On May 6, 2001, the Capitol City League Rockies and the Satchel Paige League Memphis Red Sox from the Washington, DC area took 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 t-ball game on the South Lawn to promote youth health and fitness and show appreciation for the game of baseball. This is probably my favorite activity produced by the United States government. No debate, no obstruction, no veto or override. Just a baseball right where the presidents walked contemplating the decisions that would change the world. When I drive past an empty baseball field on a beautiful day, I always think, what a waste. A beautiful field, empty with no one in it. We now have a tradition every year on the White House lawn. You don’t have to be a Democrat, Republican or Independent to realize this is a bipartisan issue and a good one. How did the game of t-ball come from obscurity to the White House lawn? Well, the origin of t-ball has few different stories.
One theory has Brooklyn Dodgers great owner Branch Rickey as the creator of the actual model the batting jersey is made from. Branch Rickey, who always had the future of his team and the sport of baseball in mind, helped create the minor league system and was involved in the creation of the batting helmet. Supposedly, he introduced a flexible batting tee that came from a car engine radiator hose. Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and other Dodgers were said to have honed their skills in this man-made batting jersey. This may have been the original blueprint 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 town 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, formed a t-ball league in March 1958. According to an interview he gave, about 100 parents came to Claude demanding some kind of baseball activity for the kids. younger children. Claude maintains that he 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 answers these calls for her elderly father. Marie was kind enough to take the time to explain 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 off the wooden boards in the school’s bleachers. Claude remembered this, and either because of his own thoughts, or perhaps because he had heard what Branch Rickey did with a car radiator hose, he developed a batting jersey. When he kept snapping, 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 in 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 came up with the idea after noticing groups of youngsters looking enviously at his team of 14 and 15 year olds practicing. Dr. Hobbs was principal of an elementary school in Baghdad, Florida, near Pensacola. He had been a baseball coach since the 1950s, so he decided to organize a game for little boys by having them hit the ball off the batting tee. Dr. Hobson was not only awarded the Tee Ball trademark, but he also wrote the first official Tee Ball baseball rulebook.
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 create a modified baseball game that young children would like and succeed in playing. The story goes that Dr. Muse was in Professor Littlejohn’s office and began writing rules on how the game of t-ball should be played. They decided that having a pitcher pitch to really young kids didn’t make sense, and that it would be better if the players hit a stationary ball because the kids would achieve more success and allow faster development. They then presented the rules to the Starkville Junior Baseball Association and 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 trainer Jerry Sacharski. He was a baseball coach who invented the game in the summer of 1956. I called and spoke to one of his sons, Mike Sacharski, who gave me some important information about his father. Mike told me that his dad created this program because the brothers of the kids on the teams wanted to do something at his young age. He designed the game to be played by children between the ages of six and eight. At first it was called Pee Wee Baseball. Coach Jerry Sacharski wanted to teach kids the fundamentals of regular baseball, and he couldn’t stand real little kids giving up playing baseball because of their age. Mike told me that initially his father just wanted the kids to learn the fundamentals of fielding, throwing and running the bases. Hitting was just an afterthought. Coach Jerry Sacharski considered the umpire throwing the balls onto the field as if they had been hit. It quickly evolved for kids to hit the ball off a batting tee that was obtained from a neighboring town in Michigan. Jerry would go to the hardware store and try to perfect the batting jersey, to make it more portable. Frank Passic, who is a historian at 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 got into any sort of battle over the origins of t-ball and considers his father a “pioneer” of the game.
Guess we’ll never meet 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 thing is certain. Dayton Hobbs registered a “Tee Ball” trademark with the United States government in the early 1970s.
It’s amazing how much the batting tee has evolved, starting with Branch Rickey’s original invention of his rubber motor hose. If you ever go to a big national baseball clinic, in their display area you’re bound to see new batting jerseys touted as the newest mousetrap that can turn a batter’s 250 average into a 400 average. If you look online and in baseball catalogs, you’ll see a myriad of different types of batting jerseys. There are the ones that seem to be the most popular, which are black and have a single rubber adjustable post. Then there are the batting tees that have moveable locations for the rubber post. There are also some that now have a protruding “arm” to help you adjust your swing just the right way. Then there are the tees that have an automatic feeder. So instead of hitting the baseball off the tee and putting in another ball to replace it, the machine will do it for you. Instead of spending $25 or $35 on a basic batting tee, you now have the option to spend up to $300 on a feeder batting tee.
It doesn’t really 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!