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Half a century of coaching Little League

Gary Hatmaker throws the opening ceremony pitch for the Powell Pioneers on May 6. Hatmaker has been coaching Little League baseball for 50 years. Gary Hatmaker throws the opening ceremony pitch for the Powell Pioneers on May 6. Hatmaker has been coaching Little League baseball for 50 years. Tribune file photo by Don Cogger

Little League Baseball started in 1938 with a three-team league in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as a way for youth to play like the major leaguers of the day. Little League has grown and changed tremendously in the 79 years since then — and Gary Hatmaker saw many of those changes firsthand, across 50 years of coaching.

“Baseball has changed a lot,” Hatmaker said. “It’s so much different now.”

The long-time Powell coach said baseball is really a game of repetition, which is a double-edged sword: In repetition, there can be improvement — though repetition can get boring for kids.

“Part of your responsibility as a coach is No. 1 to make it fun and No. 2 make it a learning experience,” Hatmaker said — especially at the Little League level.

He added that, “baseball is a very slow game; you have to appreciate that.”

As an example, the longest Little League World Series game — played between Gary, Indiana, and Taina Chinese Taipei in 1971 — lasted two hours and 51 minutes.

Hatmaker said he began coaching in the late 1960s in Washington when “a friend of ours, his son, started in Little League and he asked if I would help him and I did.”

When Hatmaker’s kids came along, he continued to coach and “I coached even after our kids were through the program,” he said.

Hatmaker moved to Powell in 1995 and started coaching Babe Ruth in 1997. Four years ago, he started coaching the Majors. He said he continued to coach “because I really enjoyed it; I missed it” and “wanted to get back into it.”

Like many coaches, Hatmaker played baseball in high school.

“I was never a really good player, but I enjoyed the game,” he said.

Hatmaker explained that in the early 1950s, every town had a home team made up of “old men,” as baseball was “a part of the social life.”

“That’s how baseball really got started,” Hatmaker said. “[It was] entertainment for a small group of people, and of course now it is a huge industry.”

In Hatmaker’s hometown in Washington, there was a professional team, made up of men in their late 20s and early 30s. Hatmaker said the players were very interested in coaching and getting involved in youth programs.

“I heard a lot of good baseball talk, I learned a lot and I just got super interested in it,” Hatmaker said.

He wasn’t the only one taking an interest in baseball: After starting with just the three teams in 1938, Little League Baseball grew to include teams from Canada, Central American and 776 leagues across the United States by 1951. Today, Little League Baseball is played in over 100 countries.

The expansion of Little League was not the only change to the program in the late 1940s and early 50s. The very first Little League World Series — called the National Little League Tournament — was played in 1947, and the LLWS was televised for the first time in 1953. It was broadcast live for the first time in 1985 by the ABC network, and live broadcasts continue to this day. Today (Thursday) marks the start of the 53rd Little League World Series in Williamsport.

Hatmaker has witnessed plenty of other changes in his 50 years of coaching.

For one thing, “In the old days, we had wood bats,” he said; the first aluminum bat was used in Little League play in 1971.

Little League leaders initially resisted allowing girls into the program; in New Jersey, it took a 1974 court ruling to let them into the sport. Little League Softball was created that same year, giving girls their own league in which to participate.

In 1979, Little League Juniors was created for 13-year-olds. In 2010, Little League created a pilot program for kids aged 12-13 (in Powell, that’s the Majors), then expanded the program in 2011 to kids ages 11-12 (the Minors).

Hatmaker, who recently moved back to Washington said Powell “is a very good town for baseball.”

The community has a great support system for the game of baseball, he said, and the city “provides beautiful facilities [that are] well maintained, the equipment is top notch and the umpires do an excellent job.”

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