By Mary L. Holden
Thanks to a man named Bill Vallely, Little League has been played for 62 of the 100 years that Arizona has been a state.
Born in Albuquerque in 1927, Vallely lied about his age so he could be drafted during World War II. While in the Navy he met a fellow sailor who told him about Little League, which had its beginnings in Williamsport, Pa. in 1938. After the war, Vallely moved to Prescott with the dream of starting Little League teams in Arizona.
He chartered the first official league in 1950 and volunteered thousands of hours to the organization. He coached his kids and grandkids for 42 years and helped a few players who fulfilled their early promise by going on to careers in professional baseball. In all, he started 17 Little League organizations. Before he died in 2004, he attended a dedication ceremony for the Prescott ball fields that were named for him in 1998.
Vallely was an icon. He was known to be intimidating as a coach but underneath a leathery exterior his heart was bigger than center field. His philosophy was that every child should have a chance to play and participate in the game: to swing a bat, field a ball and experience success and failure individually and as a team. Every member of the team got a chance to get in the game—Vallely was blind to talent. He believed in every child who wanted to hit, catch, run and throw, even if their only strength was desire.
Vallely’s son Bill, of Prescott Valley, remembers being on a team his dad coached. “He was a great coach and a big inspiration to the kids, but I found out about it years later, when people told me stories of things he did behind the scenes to help them. Several told me about how my dad bought them their first glove or arranged for them to get the right shoes or a uniform. His passion was teaching kids about teamwork and about life.”
Generations of kids have filed through the ranks of Little League every spring and summer in Arizona. In the early days it was for boys only, starting with Tee Ball as early as age 4 and ending in the Senior League before age 16. Little League softball for girls was officially added in 1974, which was also the first year that girls were allowed to play on boys’ Little League baseball teams.
Since Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, a total of 89 Arizona natives have had careers in professional baseball. Thirteen of them were born before Little League existed. That means that 76 Arizona-born major leaguers benefitted from the option of playing Little League baseball.
One of Coach Vallely’s players became well known. Prescott native John Denny played on Vallely’s teams starting in 1960. In 1983, as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, he won the Cy Young award.
A plaque at Bill Vallely Fields in Prescott reads: “Play hard and play to win, but never win at a child’s expense.”
Vallely’s philosophy is shared by Jason K. Himelstein of Phoenix, who recalls playing Little League at Madison Meadows School from 1960 to 1966. At that time, he says, it was still possible to spend the season on the bench if a coach only cared about winning.
“It wasn’t right, but back then, Little League was the hub of our social world. Everyone went to the ballpark every night. I remember that we would play baseball all day then go home, eat dinner and put on our uniforms. On nights when we weren’t playing we were watching our buddies play. The fields were manicured, the grass was green and even the dirt smelled good. The whole thing was like being in heaven.”
Himelstein went on to play baseball at Phoenix College and the University of Hawaii, then spent two years in the rookie leagues before working as a hitting instructor in the major leagues. He coached Little League in the late 1970s and from 1980 to 1992 with the Madison leagues.
“The definition of winning,” he says, “is when you can get all 12 kids to play as hard as they can for the six innings and then not care about the final score. The first obligation of a coach is safety; the second is to be fair. Little League should be fun for them!”
Himelstein recently spent half an hour in an inpromptu coaching session with Ruben Drotzmann, 13, of Phoenix, who was playing catch with his dad before practice on a Madison Meadows field. Himelstein, who was there for a photo shoot, noticed Ruben holding the ball incorrectly, so he showed the teenager how to align his fingers properly with the seam of the ball. Then he offered some tips on swing and grounder techniques, all the while regaling Ruben and his dad, Tom, about his time playing ball in college, the rookie leagues and coaching in the majors.
At one point, he showed Ruben the way major leaguers fold their caps so they retain their shape—even after being shoved into a glove or a back pocket.
Himelstein chatted up several other kids and parents who were meandering in to various practices and games before sharing a note from the parents of a player he had coached. They said how grateful they were that Himelstein had been a coach and role model for their son, who was later murdered.
That kind of connection—the ability to influence a young life—is what Himelstein sought when he began coaching. It’s something he didn’t get in his own family, but he got it from Little League. And for that, he can thank Bill Vallely.
Mary L. Holden, of Phoenix, is the mother of two grown children, John and Annie. Daniel Friedman contributed to this article.
For more information on Little League, visit http://www.littleleague.org.
For more information about finding a Little League team in Arizona, visit eteamz.com/azstatell.