Book review: ‘PLAY BALL!’

The Van Aukens’ fascinating Little League book gets an upgrade

For Little League players, fans, coaches and parents, “Play Ball!” is essential reading.

Subtitled “The Story of Little League Baseball,” this fascinating volume was originally published in 2001 by Penn State Press — but it went out of print in recent years. Now, thanks to Omnibus Publishing, the book is available once more, fully revised and updated by local authors Lance and Robin Van Auken.

Though I myself am not a Little League aficionado, I barreled through the entire book in less than two days, riveted by the careful research, impeccable writing, handsome layout and encyclopedic detail on every conceivable aspect of this venerable, 79-year-old institution.

Starting with a whirlwind history of Major League Baseball — including material on ball-related sports in ancient Persia, Egypt, Greece and North America — “Play Ball!” covers the humble beginnings of Little League in Williamsport and its gradual expansion to the cultural juggernaut covered by ESPN today.

Other material canvassed: LL’s battles with racism and its opening up to girls (including the exciting saga of Mo’ne Davis in 2014); the recent dominance of foreign teams; controversies and scandals; injuries, insurance and safety measures (including work to combat pedophilia); the 2017 advent of Major League play at Williamsport’s Bowman Field (smallest venue ever to host an MLB match); Little League museum; rules and regulations; video replay; and various LL offshoots such as softball, Intermediate, Babe Ruth, Pony and Senior leagues, plus Challenger ball for the disabled.

All the while, the Van Aukens carefully sprinkle in thrilling stories of specific games, along with compelling player stats and individual bios.

Indeed, LL’s widespread impact is suggested by the number of famous names that crop up here — some from the world of baseball (Mantle, DiMaggio, Stengel, Mussina, Jeter, Jackie Robinson) and others from outside the field: Bob Dole, Lawrence Welk, Lou Rawls, Herbert Hoover, Lucille Ball, Bruce Springsteen, Rudy Giuliani, Tom Selleck, Tony Dungy, Bill Bradley, Bob Hope, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Walt Disney, George Will and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Every few pages, to break up the text, “Play Ball!” also includes an inset box on some specialized topic such as ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Little League in war-torn Bosnia, Abner Doubleday or popular local figures like beloved LL founder Carl Stotz, physician Creighton J. Hale, WRAK radio announcer Bud Berndt and Sun-Gazette sports writer Raymond J. Keyes.

In compiling their book, the Van Aukens conducted dozens of live interviews, also accessing magazines, newspapers, Little League archives and copious photos, including some by local lens-man Putsee Vannucci, who documented every LL World Series from 1947-2005. Their book includes a handy index and numerous appendices listing World Series champs, a Little League timeline, participating cities, states and countries, and various LL honors and awards down through the years.

Such expertise is not surprising. A former Little League player who has coached, managed, umpired and volunteered, Lance currently serves as vice president of Little League International and executive director of the museum. His wife, Robin, is an author, educator and archaeologist with 10 books on local history to her credit — plus fiction in a variety of genres including romance, adventure and suspense. She runs the consulting and public-relations firm Hands on Heritage, which specializes in preserving cultural legacies.

John Grisham fittingly called the Van Aukens’ book “a delightful walk down the storied history of Little League Baseball”; and Library Journal insisted, “This well-illustrated, popularly written account should be on the shelves of every library that serves a community with a Little League team.”

That certainly includes Williamsport.