Players from across the country expected at Milwood Little League reunion

It was 1957. Elvis' "All Shook Up" was on the radio. Ike was in the White House. Nine-year-old Randy Mason was real excited to get on his first Milwood Little League team.

Then he saw the team name, that would be printed on his shirt: Kal-San Garbage.

"Do I have to play for this team?" he complained to his dad. Dad advised Randy to buck up and deal -- dad had also just gotten a good deal for the company's garbage service and had paid in advance for an entire year. 

"And about two months later they shut down and took off. He talked about them for years, about how he got screwed out of his money," Mason, now a 71-year-old retiree, reminisces from his home in Florida.

Other than briefly playing for the "Garbage" team, life as a Little League player was "Great... I just really enjoyed it." 

Mason, and former Milwood Little League players from around the country, will be returning to Vandenberg Park Saturday, June 15 to play a little ball and celebrate over 60 decades of play and community. 

Timeless baseball

Milwood Little League began in 1955. It served just the Milwood neighborhood, but over the years grew to cover kids from the edge of Portage to Downtown Kalamazoo, neighborhoods from Winchell to Edison. 

President Bud Vanderberg oversaw the growth of the chapter as a national force, hosting the Little League Softball World Series and expanding what's now Vanderberg Field with its eight diamonds.

It grew, but did the Little League experience change over the decades?

"Not a whole lot," Mason says.

Mason married, bought a house in Milwood, and got back into Little League with his daughters in the '70s. Though busy with demanding shifts as a Kalamazoo police officer and, later, detective, Mason did everything for the league but "cut the grass," he says.

From the '70s to the '80s, "I managed, umpired, stuff like that, then got onto the board, and ended up being president of the league."

The game stayed the same because the Milwood Little League goal stayed the same. "We had one goal, and that was to make sure everybody gets to play, and that it was more about fun than it was anything else," Mason says. "It was just about fun, learning how to play the game, learning how to listen to a manager and get the ability to do what you're supposed to do -- which parents have a difficult time with," he says with a laugh.

The same principles guide Milwood Little League this century. 

Current president Kim Feenstra gives a speech every year to her staff, telling the adults, "It doesn't matter if you win or lose, you don't even need to keep score; I want the kids to try different positions, I want the kids to have fun. I don't want to hear you yelling at the kids. All of these adults are role models for these kids. Don't be yelling at the umpire, all the kids on your team are watching you." 

One negative that's often seen in the national news, in any youth sport, is the acting-out of parents who can't deal with the stress of watching kids compete. "It happens every year," Feenstra says with some weariness. 

"But I would say our biggest struggle, and I've seen it get worse and worse every year I've been there, is getting volunteers," she says. "I pay the person who mows our grass and does our field, and I pay the kid who puts the lines, the chalk, down. Otherwise, the whole organization is all volunteer based."

Feenstra became involved when her stepson started playing in 2007. "He stopped playing when he was 14, and he's turning 20 this year. We stayed much longer than he did."

Parents of players often pitch in, but player participation is also down.

Are kids still interested in Little League? "It varies," Feenstra says. Ten years ago "maybe 400 to 450 kids" were playing in Milwood, this year it's 321. "I have not seen the numbers we used to have, for sure. I think kids just get more interested in soccer or travel baseball, travel softball things," she says.
 
Travel ball competition

"We get a lot of younger kids in, but as they get older I think we're losing them to travel ball."

Travel ball is not a new phenomenon, but its growth causes some to see it as an eroding force for community youth baseball. 

"Basically, it's organizations that take a lot of money from parents, and their teams as well, that participate in tournaments. It could cost a parent $500 to $1,000, maybe more, to be on one of these travel teams," Feenstra says.

"What I'm finding out is that more and more are popping up, and they're willing to take anybody's money who wants to pay," she adds. "A lot of parents think their kids need to do this travel ball because their kid's going to be the next Derek Jeter or whatever. We try to promote Little League to be a more affordable way for kids to be able to play."

It's $125 for a player to join Milwood, but the per-child cost goes down for families with multiple players. Scholarships for lower-income families are "going up every year," with sponsors helping kids so they can afford to play, Feenstra says.

All players learn good citizenship

Little League Baseball Inc. is celebrating its 80th season this year. Its history parallels the U.S.'s evolution in inclusivity. 

In 1950, a "Tubby" Johnston played briefly until it was found that the boy was a girl, Kay Johnston. The organization enacted the Tubby Rule, banning girls. Girls were finally allowed in 1974.

In 1955, the first all-white and all-black teams played together in Florida. The same year 61 all-white Little League teams in South Carolina were disqualified when they refused to play a black team. The organization emphasized its policy of non-discrimination, triggering the formation of a whites-only Dixie League Baseball. (Still in existence as Dixie Youth Baseball, they were forced to integrate by the Civil Rights Act.)

Today, Milwood Little League serves as a learning experience for Kalamazoo children from different backgrounds and neighborhoods. They also are the only chapter in the district with a Challenger Division, for players with disabilities.

 "We're teaching them how to hit a ball and all of that, but it's more about teaching them to be good citizens, to have good sportsmanship, to be kind to each other, to have fun," Feenstra says. 

Since they're just beyond the chainlink fences at Milwood Elementary on Portage Street and Lovers Lane, "everyone can see our fields," she says.

For the reunion, "we're hearing from so many families, 'I played there, I can't believe I get to come back.'"

This is Feenstra's last year as president. It's been a "huge part" of her life for 12 years, she says, going from "home, to work, to the Little League fields, and I do that five to six days a week. And that's how it is for a lot of families. It's a lot of good times and fun memories. I miss watching my kids play." 
 
There will be a lot of gray-haired kids playing ball June 15. But it's all for the younger kids. "The kids just love to be out there," she adds. "Especially the little ones. It's why I've stayed so long. It's a lot of work, but once we start playing games, and I see kids out there smiling, it's definitely worth it." 

The reunion game is at 11 a.m., Saturday, June 15. For more details, please visit here.  

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering everything from The Beastie Boys to invasive species. For more information see his website here.
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