The “World” was back in the Little League World Series this year.
The past two years, pandemic restrictions kept international teams from competing in one of the most iconic events in American sports. But they were back this summer, with Curacao advancing to the championship game before falling to a team from Honolulu in Sunday’s final.
The presence of teams from around the globe in the Little League World Series is a reminder of baseball’s popularity far beyond our borders. And the way the event brings together kids from all over the world to maybe help build bridges and foster a respect for other cultures is its most appealing aspect.
It’s a good time to remember that a group of 11- and 12-year-olds from right here in Northwest Indiana also helped expand the event’s horizons and, hopefully, of all of the players and fans who have been drawn to it over the years,
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Those were the Anderson Little Leaguers from Gary, who in 1971 became the first all-black team to advance to the World Series. They reached the championship game before losing to Taiwan, gaining fans along the way as star Lloyd McClendon hit home runs in five straight at-bats before being intentionally walked the rest of the way.
It’s been an often-told story over the 51 years since that fateful summer, but maybe still not often enough.
McClendon is ever gracious in accommodating those who want to know more about him and his teammates. Last month, he took a night off from his job as manager of the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A team in Toledo to come home for his induction into the Gary Sports Hall of Fame.
“The experience we had as being the first all-black team (in Williamsport) was really astounding,” McClendon said before the induction ceremony. “At the time, we didn’t really understand the impact we had.
“People are still talking about it 50 years later and you realize it was a tremendous impact not only from the economic standpoint but also from the everyday life standpoint, how people viewed each other and how people looked at black people.”
McClendon and his buddies were just kids living in the moment, of course. They were just playing the game they loved — better than almost anyone on the planet.
“You marvel at the innocence of it when it was all happening,” he said. “We didn’t really realize what was going on. Looking back now, (you think), ‘Wow, we made a difference.'”
And after a lifetime in baseball, with stops at Roosevelt High School and Valparaiso University, plus playing stints with the Reds, Cubs and Pirates and managerial jobs with the Pirates, Mariners and Tigers — McClendon is still making a difference. He’s still trying to grow the game in the African American community.
“I have this conversation with kids every winter,” he said. “And it’s about the love of the game. Baseball has so much to offer. It teaches us so much about different people from different nationalities, different cultures, diferent backgrounds, different countries.
“I call it the university of life.”
McClendon sees money as the biggest barrier for kids in Gary and other urban areas regarding baseball. Being able to afford travel ball is “almost impossible,” he said.
What he’d like to see is more kids playing with their buddies, close to home — just like he and his friends did all those years ago.
“But it’s going to take more than just talk,” McClendon said. “It’s going to take the presence of men to get involved and reach back and give to these kids. It’s going to take money from the cities to give them a chance, give them a fighting chance to be the next Lloyd McClendon.”
McClendon had people like that in his life from Anderson coach Jesse Lawson to Roosevelt coach Benny Dorsey and so many more.
“I would never have made it (without them),” McClendon said. “We need those type of people to be involved with our kids again.”
PHOTOS: Gary Sports Hall of Fame induction
Mike Clark is the Sports Editor at The Times of Northwest Indiana. Leave him a message at 219-933-4197 or reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mikeclarkpreps.
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