Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller once criticized Little League baseball for its interference in children's spontaneous play. He went so far as to say that the structured "fun" that adults impose on kids in these miniature versions of the big leagues was the worst thing that had happened to baseball in the last generation. Feller felt that the innumerable variations on organized baseball which kids constantly invented-games like "rollies to the bat" and "scrub"-as well as the general goofing off that kids did when left alone on ballfields, far surpassed the adult-ridden "games" of the Little League.
In terms of community-building, too, there's something to be said for the old ballplayer's nostalgia about a time when youngsters organized their own ball games and every other sort of game. Kids have an enormous capacity to form and maintain community during their playtime. There is organization, structure, discipline, sanction, forgiveness, spontaneity-and sheer fun-in the games devised by children when left on their own.
In the community where I live, we once counted six youngsters, ranging in age from 3 to 14. During one particular summer when the Olympic Games were taking place, these six, together with an assortment of their neighborhood friends, conducted their own games in the restricted confines of our inner-city, asphalt back yard. For hours each day, the kids replicated the running, jumping, vaulting, and throwing that they were watching on television in the evenings.
These special Summer Olympics featured trash barrels as props for all sorts of agility tests. The two sawhorses our community owns became the low and high hurdles, as well as measures for a couple of miniature pole vaulters. Chalk marks on the concrete marked starting and finishing lines.
Needless to say the adults in the community generally entered and left the house by another door during the games. The children's patient if exasperated looks said it all when a passing adult would unthinkingly interrupt some championship event in the back yard. Our collective memory of that inner-city Olympiad is one of constant activity and hilarity-from the kids and the frequent grown-up spectators.
LOOKING BACK, it's clear that the Olympic village which grew up among the children that summer had quite clear rules and regulations, though none of us adults was totally privy to them. We just knew that governance was in place. The games produced definite winners and losers, though not much was made of that, and each day started with a clean slate for all. There were organizers and rule changes especially when a particular event proved too demanding for smaller members of the community. Rewards and punishments were meted out with absolute fairness, because judges and competitors changed places constantly.
Wasn't there a book written some time ago about learning life's most important lessons in the sandbox? Our Summer Olympics did not feature a sandbox, but valuable lessons were taught and learned during those days of endless games. One would venture to say that such lessons had nearly the impact of those learned in the other dimensions of our community life.
Independent communities of kids at play teach their members about leading and following-who the leaders are, and why they deserve to be followed. They teach about talents and the lack thereof (the perennial right fielder in my early community was a popular kid who just couldn't play baseball, but no one faulted him for that). Communities of youngsters tend to correct injustices and take care of the "little kids," the ones who can't or won't defend themselves. And these youthful communities instruct boys and girls in proper attitudes toward one another. Growing up I knew that Mary Dailey was as good at any game as us boys. We liked her and respected her, together with all the other girls in our gang. (Mary became a member of the Women's Professional Baseball League and has a niche in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame.)
So, in the interests of starting community at an early age, perhaps we should listen to Mr. Feller, the old Cleveland flamethrower, and move the Little Leagues into the background a bit. Let the kids (figuratively) duke it out for themselves-not without parental and adult interest and occasional intervention-but essentially on their own. We may be surprised. One day a son or daughter could decide during a game to lie down in the outfield grass and gaze at the floating clouds above-then get up, make the diving, rolling catch that saves the game for his/her pickup team, and go home with a hero's glow. It's worth the gamble, for that experience of community will stand by her/him for a lifetime.
JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C. This column has appeared in the former "Community" department of Sojourners, the rest of which may now be found in the new "Taking Action" department (see page 43).