This article was originally developed as an oral presentation given by the author to the Society for American Baseball Research at their SABR 45 Convention in Chicago on June 27, 2015. The presentation, which featured the innovative use of video, audio and transitional animation embedded within a PowerPoint deck, was awarded the annual Doug Pappas Research Award as the best of the 32 oral presentations made during the convention that weekend.
This article has been repurposed from that deck. Since the Retrosheet play-by-play data on which this study was predicated were updated just days before the original presentation, all the data provided during the oral presentation have been updated for this article.
Let’s start off this article the way I started off my presentation to SABR: with a quick poll. And you might as well be honest, now, because otherwise you’re just bullshitting yourself, and that would just be pathetic.
- How many of you played Little League when you were a kid? Hands up, please. OK… keep them up. Now:
- How many of you ever hit a home run in a Little League game? If you did, keep your hands up. OK… now, finally:
- How many of you hit an actual home run clear over the outfielders’ heads and were able to trot all the way around the bases in a Little League game?
Not so many of you, right? Only the very best players on any given Little League team ever hit that kind of home run. If you’re like me, and like most Little Leaguers, if you ever hit a home run in Little League, this is what it probably looked like this:
Yes, as Rod Allen said, that was, indeed, a “Little League home run.” But how can we tell it was? I mean, I guess we can just look at it and, because we’re savvy baseball cognoscenti, we can tell, well, sure, that was a Little League home run. I mean, come on, anyone can see that.
But how do we actually know, for sure? There have to be some internal criteria we are applying, even subconsciously, as we watch that play that tells us instantly that what we just watched was, indeed, a Little League home run.
So what I sought to do in my SABR presentation, and now in this article, is to establish a conscious, accepted definition for the Little League home run, or at least start the discussion about what the criteria should be.
The Definition of the Little League Home Run
Here’s a proposed, simple definition of a Little League home run:
- Two or more errors on the play; and
- Batter scores on the play.
That’s it. Simple, isn’t it? Simple is good. Simple is right. Simple works.
Why this definition? Two reasons:
- It reflects the spirit of the term: a bunch of kids booting the ball and throwing it all over the field while the batter (and all the runners) chug all the way around the bases and score. It’s not necessarily shameful to make a single error on a play, because that happens in most major-league games as it is. But it’s downright comical for a team, especially a major league team, to make two or more on a single play. And…
- It’s easy to query on, making the discovery of Little League home runs throughout history as simple as plugging these two parameters into a query tool.
Here’s another good, clear-cut example of a Little League home run:
To try to find all the Little League home runs that have occurred in major-league history, we first need to determine how much history is actually available to us, in the place where these data live: the Retrosheet archives.
Retrosheet, as you probably know, is the home of play-by play data spanning regular-season games, numbering into the six figures, played since 1921, as well as every All-Star and World Series game. The “bad” news is that not every regular-season game is available for us to query on. There are several missing seasons: basically almost everything before 1930, except for some games from 1921 (NL only); 1922; 1925; and 1927. In fact, complete seasons are available only since 1946.
The good news is that, even with 50 entire seasons missing and portions of many others as well, we still have play-by-play data for almost 71% of all the games that have ever been played since the beginning of the 1876 season available to us. That gives us, as of now, exactly 148,390 games to query on, and that’s a pretty good sample size, right?
The Origins of the Little League Home Run
The earliest recorded incident of what we would call a “Little League home run” that we could query on occurred in the 1911 World Series. Jack Barry was the batter for the hometown Philadelphia A’s, and he came up against New York Giants starter Red Ames in the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 6 of the series.
The play is recorded like this:
You Retrosheet geeks will know instantly exactly what this means, but for those of you who don’t, how about I share the highly entertaining newspaper account of the play with you? This is how a local paper called the “New York Times” described the hilarity that ensued (within red box only):
Isn’t 1911-style sportswriting great?
The sharp-witted readers among you (and of course I mean you, specifically) have already noted that this kind of play was considered so unusual that it was referred to as “something new in baseball,” as though it were a bona fide strategy they were undertaking. And if you think about it, that makes sense: there had been fewer major-league games in history played at that point; hardly anybody in the country outside of the major cities had ever been to one; and there were practically no “moving pictures” of major-league games for people to watch which, even if they were available, would be seen only at the local nickelodeons alongside films of racy fan dancers and freakish fire-eaters. So it’s entirely possible that no one attending that game had ever before seen what we would recognize today as a Little League home run.
Obviously, the news accounts of 1911 could not have referred to this event as a “Little League home run”, since the actual Little League organization itself was not founded until 1939. So I went rooting through newspaper accounts looking for the earliest mention of the term “Little League home run” I could find, as applied to a two-error batter-scoring play. The result came back as June 2, 1974, when the term was (first?) written out by a beat writer named Jeff Prugh who worked California Angels games that year for the Los Angeles Times. That ball was hit during the game played the day prior by Denny Doyle of the Angels off of Joe Coleman of the Detroit Tigers.
Here’s the Retrosheet descriptor of the play:
But again, the newspaper account is much more fun to read:
Again, this is the earliest mention I could find, but if you ever happen to find an earlier mention, please send it along and we’ll correct this.
So that takes care of the definition of the Little League home run, and its origins. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll take a look at some of the numbers and oddities surrounding the Little League home run phenomenon.