This morning, I have a story in the paper about new Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon and his hitting and pitching exploits at the 1971 Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. McClendon has refered to the title game that year against the team from defending champion Taiwan as a defining moment in his baseball career.
It’s when he says he truly learned that, what matters in baseball is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. McClendon had hit four home runs his only four at-bats of the tournament to that point, getting walked intentionally every other time and earning the media nickname “Legendary Lloyd.”
In the deciding game, the pitcher from Taiwan decided to pitch to him in the first inning and McClendon hit a three-run homer to put Gary ahead 3-0. But the Gary team managed only one other hit all day, striking out 22 times. McClendon was the Gary team’s ace starter and struck out 12 batters of his own to keep the game close.
The Taiwanese team tied it up in the regulation six innings and the mound duel continued for three more extras until it all came apart in the ninth. McClendon served up seven runs that inning and his opponents tacked on two more once he was pulled to go on to a 12-3 rout.
McClendon left the mound in tears as he was pulled, but his father was right there alongside his coach, telling him that it was OK — that he’d done his best. And McClendon says he’s strived to keep doing his best ever since.
In telling the story, I went back and spoke with some of his teammates to get a sense of what it was like for them, being described in newspapers at the time as the first “All-Negro” team to play at the World Series. Clearly, some language has changed since those times, but to say the Gary players were in a different world isn’t stretching things.
As I was told by McClendon’s catcher, Ralph Basemore, the tournament was the first time many of the players had been outside of Gary. They had never even met a real Asian before, so when they saw the team from Taiwan, conversing in their language, they found it strange and somewhat intimidating. They never adapated to the high leg kick of the Taiwanese ace pitcher that day and were manhandled in a pitching performance like they’d never witnessed.
McClendon has given prior interviews describing how it felt to go up against a team that was superior and a pitcher that was better than he was. It was a humbling experience for a player many of his peers say was already quiet and humble enough. But it was also a learning experience, where McClendon saw that even his best effort wasn’t going to be enough to overcome.
As I said, sometimes the victory is in knowing you gave it your all. It’s something McClendon later demanded from his overmatched Pirates teams as a manager and that he says he’ll keep demanding of the Mariners.
It’s easy to think of Little League games as meaningless in the context of the majors, but that would not be the case here. I’ve covered the Little League World Seires twice, in 1998 and 2000, and can tell you it’s nothing like what you see at your neighborhood ballpark. The pressure on the youngsters there, ages 11 and 12, is enormous.
Throw in the context of what the Gary players were going through as the first all-black team, representing a community on the verge of some seriously harsh times, and you know this was larger than life for them. It was, as stated, the turning point in McClendon’s baseball career. Where he truly saw the essence of the game for what it was.
For others, like Basemore and his younger brother, Vincent, or local car dealer Carl Weatherspoon, it was arguably a highlight of their lives. There was no majors to follow for them and when it came to baseball, it didn’t get any bigger than this.
The Gary team became heroes in their hometown, one in need of some civic pride and something more to claim as their own. Gary is the home of the Jackson Five, three of which attended Roosevelt High School, where McClendon went to school and enjoyed an all-state baseball career before attending Valparaiso University on a scholarship.
McClendon’s high school coach, Benny Dorsey, also taught there and had Tito Jackson and Latoya Jackson in his classes. Back then, Roosevelt High was one of the best schools in the nation for academics. It had six or seven different Little League organizations.
Today, there is only one Little League in Gary and the city itself has fallen victim to crime and drug problems as the steel mills that drove the economy began shutting down by the 1980s.
But Dorsey, now 76, can remember a time when the city was bursting with hard-working, caring families who watched over their kids as they played baseball in the streets until well after dark. A time when civic pride reigned over things like a family music group or a bunch of Little Leaguers doing big things on the world’s stage.
And he says that hasn’t changed. That, at its core, the city still has solid, proud citizens, who have endured despite hard times.
Dorsey continues to volunteer his time coaching local youth baseball and basketball.
Weatherspoon, now a car dealer, ran the local Little League until a few years ago. He talks about the need to “give back to the community” and how the 1971 team should try to organize a reunion at some point.
The team’s coach, Jesse Lawson, died a few years ago. But the rest of the team, as far as anyone knows, is still alive.
As are the memories from that special August more than 42 years ago.
Don’t tell the people from Gary that it was only a Little League tournament. For the players and the fans who lauded them for years afterwards, that summer meant the world. Whether it’s a guy like Basemore, still working in a local steel mill, or somebody like McClendon, living the big league dream, those childhood experiences were equally powerful and remain ever vivid.
“It was the best time of my life as a child,” Basemore told me.
And for McClendon, those days in Williamsport are still influencing the baseball philosophy he’ll bring to Seattle as an adult starting today.