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Death of a Wildcat

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A guy you never heard of, but who has likely affected the lives of your kids in sports, has died.

On Wednesday, John S. Grantham Sr. died in Fort Wayne, Ind., at age 74 of a Parkinson’s-related illness. Who was he? For 33 years (1971-2004) he was the president of Fort Wayne’s Wildcat Baseball League. He didn’t start the league. But Grantham kept it growing and helped make it a national model for how to run a youth sports league.

The Wildcat league is best known for its motto: “Everybody makes the team.” In a sense, you could argue that the Wildcat Baseball League, and the all attention it generated, including this 1988 Sports Illustrated piece, popularized the idea that youth sports could be an activity, not a competition.

After all, when 80-year-old soybean magnate Dale McMillen founded the league in 1960, it was a time when 80 percent of Fort Wayne’s boys who tried out for baseball got cut from their teams. (When I played Little League in 1981 in North Muskegon, Mich., players still risked getting cut.) The idea of a league where everyone plays was a radical idea. But that’s the kind of league McMillen ran, up until he died in 1971 at age 91. Kids paid for their T-shirts and caps, and the other expenses — including hiring paid coaches — came on McMillen’s dime. The emphasis was on instruction. Instead of razzing a kid for striking out or flubbing a grounder, a coach will take a second and show the child what he did wrong — and what he can do right. The emphasis was on practice, not games.

Not that score is never kept in Wildcat Baseball — it is. There are championship trophies, and everyone doesn’t get one. But the perfect attendance trophies are just as large, and just as coveted.

Grantham started working with Wildcat baseball in 1963, and he succeeded McMillen as league president. He kept up the Wildcat instructional traditions, and kept up the endowment so now, as then, all kids pay for is the T-shirt and cap while the league pays the coaches. Grantham also continued McMillen’s work of getting major-leaguers to come by to visit (Jackie Robinson once showed), and organizing bus trips to take thousands of Fort Wayne kids to Detroit or Chicago for Major League games.

Grantham also, according to fellow Wildcatters quoted in Fort Wayne papers, was instrumental in getting national publicity for the league, including the SI article and an NBC Nightly News piece. Parade Magazine had just left town after reporting a piece on the program right before Grantham’s death. It might be too much to say that the fact many leagues don’t cut kids anymore (at least not for house leagues) or make a big deal stating they’re all about instruction over winning has something directly to do with McMillen, Grantham and Wildcat Baseball. But it probably does, at least because Wildcat Baseball did it before a lot of others and has done it better.

Over the years, about 200,000 Fort Wayne boys (and girls now, too) have gone through the Wildcat program. Some have gone to further success (though no big major-leaguers), but that’s not the point. Often, a family, especially in an urban area, has to choose between a competitive program that’s expensive or no program at all — the latter of which might happen because the money isn’t available to fund a decent youth sports league. Fortunately for the kids of Fort Wayne, the work of McMillen and Grantham means their parents have another, better option.

Written by rkcookjr

July 2, 2009 at 4:21 pm