Little League brings back memories

Published 1:32 am Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Today is the Fourth of July. I am, and always have been, unabashedly patriotic. I was a teenager during World War II, and lost some older heros in that conflict. I am still thrilled when “The National Anthem” is played, and am honored to stand during patriotic church services when the Air Force song is played and sung.

During my college football officiating career, one of the biggest thrills every game was when the band played “The Star Spangled Banner” and I could (unheard, of course) loudly sing along with 80,000 fans.

How times have changed since my childhood. The first time I ever heard the words “little league” was the summer after my family moved to Natchez. The late Newt Jones and Bill Carroll, among others, started Little League in Natchez that summer. Though Little League baseball had long been around in the North, it had not caught on in the South.

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Boys, then, had many other less-organized activities to keep them busy. The playgrounds which were run by the City Recreation Department provided a ready softball league, with both boys and girls playing on the same teams. There was a large city softball league for adults. The first all-star team from the Natchez Little League came within one game of making it to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn. That was really good for a bunch of 11- and 12-year olds who had for the most part never played organized baseball before that summer.

Some of those kids are still around, and many went on to become good high school and beyond athletes. If I mention any names, I risk leaving out even more so I won’t take that chance. I do remember that the late Cliff Weeks was considered to be the best shortstop in that league and thought to have had a great baseball future. Some unthinking manager made him decide between baseball and golf, and he chose golf. All that did was get him a golf scholarship at LSU, and Cliff went on to win many Natchez city and club championships before his untimely death.

Growing up in Knoxville during and right after World War II, there were not any real organized summer sports programs for kids. A lot of boys and girls went to summer camps, with sessions lasting usually four or eight weeks. Most, but not all, were inexpensive, and there were several Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps in the area. I attended Camp LeConte in the Smokies, which was located close to a hamlet called Elkmont. The campers were divided into the “Choctaws” and “Cherokees.” Would that be politically correct today? The two sides played each other all summer in softball, swimming, basketball, archery and track. From time to time, the older campers would play against teams from other area camps. I remember a trip over the mountains to play a softball game against Arrowhead Camp in North Carolina. We lost the game on (what else?) a bad umpire’s call. Funny what sticks in your mind.

I hope everybody has a safe Fourth.

And, That’s Official

Al Graning writes a weekly sports column. He can be reached by e-mail at