08/13/08 10:00 AM ET
McClendon reminisces on Little League
Tigers hitting coach starred in 1971 Series, but team lost
By Justice B. Hill / MLB.com
Replaying in McClendon's mind this afternoon are those handful of sun-drenched August days from the summer of 1971 when he was a 12-year-old boy from Gary, Ind., and held firm to the innocence of youth.
McClendon, the Tigers hitting coach, was a ballplayer back then, as he was until he hung up his spikes and glove as a Major Leaguer and turned to coaching. He still keeps fresh the memories from playing baseball 37 years ago.
No way can he forget them, he says. No way. How can he, no matter how many decades he's put between today and life's yesteryear?
In the summer of 1971, McClendon lived the dreams of any boy who's ever buttoned up a Little League jersey. He found himself in Williamsport, Pa., hitting and pitching and catching on the evergreen shrine where so many boys before him and since had lived out baseball fantasies of their own.
"Every 12-year-old boy should have that type of experience," McClendon says, his eyes wide and looking out onto the manicured grass in Cleveland. "It was tremendous."
Yet he knows that few get to play in the Little League World Series. Sure, they hope for it; they dream of it. But the road to Williamsport is pockmarked with obstacles that prevent such a dream from turning into a Technicolor reality.
And even when a boy gets there, he has no assurances that he'll be leaving the place toting a championship. The competition is too stiff, the talent too good for any guarantees. Most boys leave Williamsport with defeat in tow.
But the memories of Williamsport -- oh, those memories -- they linger long, particularly for a man who had a World Series such as McClendon had in 1971, the year that aluminum bats were introduced there.
His performance has become part of Little League lore. He reflects on that performance with such clarity that it seems of a more recent vintage.
The summer of '71 was a different time in American history, McClendon says. In an era of racial unrest, long-haired, tie-dyed hippies, hard rock and Vietnam War protests, he and 11 other boys from the Anderson Little League team in Northwest Indiana became the first all-black team to reach Williamsport.
"I remember when our manager told us we were going to the Little League World Series, we're all saying, 'Where's that?'" he says. "We had no idea we were playing to go to the Little League World Series."
The Little Leaguers from Gary were pioneers, even if they didn't know they were. They proved to people that blacks from the inner city could play baseball as well as anybody else in the world.
None of those youngsters played the game as well as McClendon. No one had a World Series to compare with McClendon's, either -- not then or since. He was the brightest star of that 1971 Series; he was the brightest star in the history of the Series.
In his first four at-bats, he saw four pitches, and McClendon, all 5-foot-5 and 140 pounds of him at the time, homered four times. His next at-bats led to intentional walks. He didn't see another pitch until the first inning of the championship game against Taiwan.
At the media gathering before the championship game, journalists asked the manager of the Taiwan team if he'd follow the strategy that other Series teams had used, meaning he wouldn't allow his pitchers to pitch to McClendon.
The manager said, "No."
He spoke of honor and how important honor was to his team. To intentionally walk McClendon, the manager said, would bring dishonor.
"Well, I hit a three-run homer in my first at-bat, and I got intentionally walked the next four times," McClendon says. "I guess that honor stuff went right out the window."
His homer gave Anderson a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, but he and his teammates couldn't hold it. They went into extra innings tied with Taiwan until the ninth. A handful of errors and passed balls ended two hours and 51 minutes of baseball, and McClendon and his teammates left the field in tears.
They'd lost to Taiwan, 12-3.
"We went back home for the summer and did what every 12-year-old would do at that time: We went back to playing sandlot baseball for the rest of the summer," he says. "I guess the beauty of the whole thing is that we were 12 years old. It was just a baseball game."
So much has happened since '71. Of the players on the Anderson team, McClendon is the only one who reached the Majors. Many of his teammates, he says, went on to find success in other areas of life.
But all of them have a reason to reflect on that summer -- a summer that brought a team from Gary, Ind., to the Mount Everett of youth baseball.
"I often wonder about what it would've been like if we'd won it," McClendon says. "But I think the fact is that game, for me, it probably really had a defining moment as far as who I would become in life. It certainly had a dramatic impact on my life."
He does wonder, too, what it might be like to sit with his teammates today and relive their shared experience. McClendon says they have never held a reunion, and although he knows what many of them are doing today, he thought it might be cool to bring them together and talk about that World Series of '71.
"That would be something awesome," he says. "Maybe someday we'll do it. Maybe someday."
For now, he knows he'll just have to settle for retelling that summer to sportswriters who are curious about what he remembers of it. They know how well McClendon played; they know that his team lost.
But those are things that McClendon, now 49, knows better than anybody else. The years haven't dulled the memories much.
"And '71 to, what, 2008? -- that's a long time," he says, laughing as his eyes scan Progressive Field. "I think I'm starting to get old, 'cause I'm starting not to remember a lot of things."
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.