Baseball has always been special to Bob Lutz, who covered a variety of sports during his 42-year career as a sports writer and columnist for The Wichita Eagle.
“It's always been my biggest love,” Lutz said. For him, it helped form a bond between him and his dad.
And for the past three years, it's a sport he along with hundreds of volunteers have helped introduce to hundreds of urban kids in Wichita.
Lutz calls League 42, a baseball league for boys and girls ages 5 through 14, a labor of love. The league is named after the number worn by Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.
In 2013 on a local radio sports show, Lutz pitched an idea he had been thinking about for more than a decade: creating an affordable opportunity for youth, especially minority youth, to play baseball.
By the next year, after heavy recruiting by Lutz and others who helped create the league, 220 players signed up to form 16 teams. This year's season, the league's fourth, involved about 600 players on 42 teams. There was a waiting list for some age groups this year. Around 175 volunteers were involved in coaching and other team roles, Lutz estimated.
The league's registration fee is $30 per child or for an entire family, and all equipment is provided at no cost.
Making baseball affordable for urban kids isn't the only goal of League 42, a nonprofit organization.
“The very foundation of the league is sportsmanship,” Lutz said. “We want the experience to be fun and enjoyable. We don't want the kids to feel any pressure or for coaches and parents to apply pressure.”
He also likes the fact that the league brings families of different backgrounds and ethnicities together to “enjoy night after night at the baseball field. We have reached out and done a good job of attracting African Americans, Hispanics, whites and Asians. … I get tremendous satisfaction from the diversity.”
On a recent warm summer evening, Lutz sat behind home plate at one of the three fields at McAdams Park in northeast Wichita that League 42 uses for its games. The teams were representing three of the four categories, determined by age, in the league. The categories carry the mascot names of the high school, collegiate, Negro Baseball League and MLB teams on which Robinson played: Lancers, Bruins, Monarchs and Dodgers.
At the field, Lutz visited with volunteers, sent out messages to coaches about an upcoming skills clinic and watched one of six games being played that night.
For years, the McAdams fields hadn't been used for organized baseball. During the league's season, which runs early April to early July, at least two games are played every weekday night on each of the fields. Games postponed due to weather are made up on Saturdays.
One of the fields, the one where a T-ball game was underway this evening, is brand new, the result of the city's allotment of $1.5 million in community improvement funds to support the park and the league. Besides the turf T-ball and coach pitch fields, the funds also were used for a new restroom/ concession facility. The league is raising money for other improvements, Lutz said, that will include a fourth field, more parking and lighting.
Eventually, Lutz would like for League 42 to expand its outreach and become involved in academic tutoring for its players, helping improve their success in the classroom, as well.
Lutz recently retired from his career at The Wichita Eagle, in large part because running and growing League 42 needed more of his time. He estimates he puts in about 50 hours a week during the league's season and about 25 hours a week in the off-season. The Derby native also coaches a team of 7- and 8-year-olds in League 42; the team is named the Panthers, in homage to his high school team.
Lutz credits the hundreds of volunteers and generous donors with being the major reasons of the league's success. Run primarily on donations, the league costs about $100,000 to $125,00 to operate each year. To find out more about League 42 or to donate, visit league42.org.