By MeLinda Schnyder
Not every kid has to love baseball, but every kid should have the chance to try the sport. With the cost of registering and outfitting a kid to play on a summer baseball team easily reaching several hundred dollars, that opportunity had become unattainable for many Wichita families.
Local sports writer Bob Lutz changed that in 2014 when he formed League 42, a baseball league for boys and girls ages 5-14 that costs $30 per child or family of children and provides equipment and uniforms. The all-volunteer, nonprofit is named in honor of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, who wore uniform No. 42.
It took a great effort that first year to recruit 200 kids and enough coaches to form 16 teams. This year a waiting list formed for some age groups and the league will include around 575 players on 42 teams. Games start April 10 at McAdams Park’s two urban baseball fields that hadn’t been used for baseball in years and now have new life.
“The smiles on the faces of so many kids who are learning to play a game they would never have even been introduced to is extremely rewarding to those of us who work in League 42,” Lutz said. “So many families – mothers and fathers – express appreciation that not only do their kids now have a summer activity but they become passionate about League 42 and what it stands for. We stress sportsmanship and while we know other youth sports leagues do the same, we also mandate sportsmanship. We have a low tolerance for unsportsmanlike conduct in our league and our parents, coaches and umpires appreciate that.”
Each team has a head coach, at least two assistant coaches and a team ambassador. In addition to practices and games, League 42 players and coaches get together throughout the year for skills clinics and social events, from free movie days to attending Wichita Thunder hockey games or Wichita State University baseball games.
Lutz, who grew up in Derby, graduated from WSU and has spent the past 43 years as a sports reporter and columnist for the Wichita Eagle, talked to us about the league’s evolution as it enters its fourth season.
VIP: Why did you start the league?
BL: I felt there was a need for baseball in Wichita’s urban areas. We decided early on that McAdams Park would be our ideal home because of the great history in that park. And the great baseball history. We have revived the game at McAdams and worked to improve the facilities there.
VIP: What does it cost to run the league and how are you funded?
BL: It costs around $80,000 per year to run our league and pay for equipment, uniforms, umpires, etc. The city of Wichita has been an incredible partner at McAdams Park and has put $1.4 million of community improvement funds into our facilities, which now include a turf T-ball/coach pitch field and a new restroom/concession facility that will be ready for the 2017 season. League 42’s goal is to raise matching funds to continue to add to our facilities. We keep our participation costs low by finding good partners for equipment and uniforms and through the donations of generous people who help us.
VIP: You went from heavily recruiting parents to sign up their kids that first year to now having a wait list with some age groups. What accounts for that?
BL: We make it work. We’re sometimes not sure how. Finding coaches is one of our biggest challenges, especially as our league has grown from 16 to 29 to 39 and now to 42 teams. But there are a lot of people out there who want to help kids and we’ve tapped into that civic pride. It’s an ongoing process.
VIP: Has the growth been what you expected?
BL: It was hard to project. There were days early on when I wondered whether this would get off the ground. But our determination was strong and we have done what we hoped we would do. We have amazing parents and kids and they want what everyone wants: to have some fun in the summer time. League 42 strives to be fun.
VIP: Five people showed up at your first organizational meeting in 2013 but after a few months you experienced a groundswell of support. Who are the folks who helped get League 42 off the ground, and how important were the contacts you had developed as a sports writer?
BL: We have a board of directors that has been instrumental in our success and growth. There are too many people who have helped to mention individually because I’ll forget someone. But this league would not exist without the efforts of some highly skilled and highly motivated people who drew up our bylaws and helped us attain 501(c)(3) status. I’m sure my visibility as a journalist helped us in some ways. It made it easier to open some doors and talk to people.
VIP: What’s been the hardest part of creating a nonprofit?
BL: I don’t really look at this as being hard. It requires a lot of work and a lot of determination, but it’s not hard. It’s fun and challenging and rewarding. Especially rewarding. I get a great sense of accomplishment through my personal efforts with League 42, and I hope many others do as well.
VIP: You’ve announced you’re retiring in April after 42 years at The Wichita Eagle. Will you be spending more time with League 42 or are you headed to a beach?
BL: There are several reasons I’ve decided to retire from the Eagle, but chief among them is my involvement with League 42 and the growing demands put on my time. It’s a labor of love.
VIP: How can readers support League 42?
BL: League 42 will always require the assistance of the public. As a nonprofit, we will have a perpetual need to add to our equipment stockpile with baseballs, bats, gloves, helmets and catchers’ gear. And we also rely heavily on cash donations. Our website is league42.org and our mailing address is League 42 Foundation, P.O. Box 20051, Wichita, KS, 67208.