Once upon a time in 1964, a little boy of 7 yearned to play Little League in his hometown, Laguna Beach. He was a too young and far too short to make the team, but his big brother got him a gig as batboy for the Rotary team. His big day came. Rotary was not doing well that day. The batter came up and struck out. The little boy was so engrossed in the game that he failed to run out of the dugout, located along third baseline. The coach, under enough stress already, chewed him out, “When that batter drops his bat, you run like hell out there and grab it.” The next batter came up; he doubled. The little boy flew out of the dugout, flashed down the third baseline and crossed home plate before snatching up the bat. The ump thought he was a runner and he scored. The little boy, unaware of the call, trotted back to the dugout. He asked the coach, “Did I do okay?” The coach quietly patted him on the back, “Yeah, you did just fine.” That little boy was me.
Laguna Beach Little League celebrates its 60th year with the first pitch of the season tonight, Friday, March 2, at Riddle Field. It has supplied boys and girls with the thrill of the game since 1952 when Jack Norworth, best known for his iconic anthem “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” started the league, the oldest west of the Mississippi. Norworth wrote the classic in 1908. He was riding a subway in New York when he saw a billboard for the Polo Grounds, then home to the Giants, who later moved to San Francisco. He grabbed pencil and paper and crafted the tune, now sung during the seventh inning stretch of every baseball game played. Interestingly, Norworth didn’t see his first baseball game until 1940.
Norworth wanted to start Little League in Laguna, an institution he brought with him from the East Coast. He enlisted the aid of the Optimists Club, which agreed to sponsor a team. The Lions and Rotary Clubs fell in line and the league was born. That first year the town hosted a parade, where Norworth and his wife passed out boxes of Cracker Jacks to the players. This continued until 1959, when Norworth passed away, though his wife continued the practice for many years. The tradition of the players marching is now incorporated with the Patriots Day Parade, though the Cracker Jacks giveaway has been absent in recent years. “We hope to bring that back,” Laguna Beach Little League president Jennifer Sweet said.
Norworth was honored in 1958, when the Brooklyn Dodgers, newly arrived to Los Angeles, gave him a trophy for his contribution to baseball at Dodgers Stadium. It was the first time he heard his song sung by a major league crowd, now a staple of every baseball game played since 1970. The outsized trophy is passed down every year, commemorating the major league Laguna champs of the season.
Riddle Field’s namesake was Jess Riddle, then mayor of Laguna. With the help of other town leaders, he raised the funds to build the park in Boat Canyon in 1958. The first four seasons were played on the field at Laguna Beach High School. Using top soil excavated from building the Boat Canyon shopping center, Riddle Field is basically a landfill. “We still get sinkholes in the backfield,” said Sweet, a seven-year board member, who has served as president for the past four. Her favorite assignment is score keeping. “That way I get to watch the game.” The City of Laguna eventually recognized Riddle Field as a city park, dedicating resources to its preservation and upkeep. That’s not to say there hasn’t been private philanthropic support since. “We couldn’t do it without a lot of help,” Sweet said.
Officially dedicated in 1963, Riddle Field has changed very little. Back stops were erected to protect spectators from being bonked on the head from stray hits and the snack bar, which also served the score keepers, were remodeled in the ‘90s. Unfortunately, the names of players and supporters past, carved into the counter, were lost to the bulldozer. Last year, the infield was replaced with new sod, donated by the Angels organization. The grounds keeper for the Angels came out and supervised the installation, laser leveling the turf.
The 1969 Elks Club’s Little League team. As an adult, Mark Christie, (center, second row) continues to support the league.
Many kids who played there grew up to be leading citizens of our community and have indelible memories of their experience. Mark Christie, co-owner of Hobie Sports, played for the Elks team and continues to support the league. “Honest to God, when I die I want my ashes scattered at Riddle. To me, it’s the most sacred place in Laguna,” he said.
This season, the league boasts 425 players, the largest in its history. About 10 percent are girls. Two of the league managers are moms. Two of President Sweet’s sons still play. She got involved, like so many, because of her kids. She wasn’t happy with the way the league was being run and decided to step up to the plate. There was an opening on the board and she came to the meeting. “I was voted in on the spot.” It goes to show that baseball isn’t just about the boys of summer.
Little League holds a tradition of honor. It teaches kids qualities they carry with them the rest of their lives. The pledge says it all, “I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win, but win or lose, I will always do my best.”
Andy Hedden is a lifelong Laguna resident.