JEFF IDELSON OBSERVES:
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – During one of his clinics in Chicago, Grassroots Baseball co-founder Jeff Idelson got to see first-hand how baseball can change a life.
“We were at the Union League Boys & Girls Club in Chicago and Goose Gossage was playing catch with a young boy,” he said. “This kid had never put a glove on, and afterwards, his older brother came over and told Goose that his little brother was going to go out for the summer team. He found a connection, he built his self-esteem and he self-selected to continue to play baseball.”
Idelson, retired Baseball Hall of Fame president, teamed up with photographer Jean Fruth to document and spread the joy of amateur baseball with their Grassroots Baseball project.
“Jean was the traveling photographer for the Hall of Fame, and whenever she shot a Major League game for us, she would peel off and cover a Little League game as well,” he said. “I was intrigued by her passion for the amateur game.”
“I was my son Simon’s Little League coach, so I would shoot the games and send photos to the local paper,” said Fruth. “The editor called me and asked if I would shoot high school college and football, and then a friend got me involved in shooting the Oakland A’s. But my passion was always shooting sandlots in New Mexico or old men playing stickball in New York City.”
Fruth’s photographs were published in her book, “Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin,” on sale at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I was giving thought to doing something more after I retired,” said Idelson. “The more we talked about it, the more we realized we wanted to give back through amateur baseball.”
Fruth came up with the idea of stopping in towns along Route 66. “It’s Americana, it’s all these long-forgotten towns that might not have access to the game,” said Idelson.
They travel in an RV to each stop, working with little league teams, American Legion teams, ball clubs and other charities to teach kids about the sport. “The coaches love knowing that people are seeing what they do,” he said. “So many of these leagues are driven by volunteers, and we want to celebrate those too.”
And joining them at each stop is a Hall of Famer or baseball Legend – including Gossage, Ozzie Smith, Johnny Bench and Jim Thome – to talk about their experience on the small-town field and to play a game of catch with the kids. “They’re real words of inspiration,” said Idelson. “They tell them, ‘I came from a town like this, I made a career and so can you.’”
“Legends can come from anywhere,” said Fruth. “Johnny Bench is from Binger, Oklahoma, a town of 600 people. These kids don’t have travel teams, but they need these same opportunities to play.”
The kids also receive a Rawlings leather glove and baseball and a pouch of Big League Chew bubble gum.
“The kids can’t believe they get to keep the equipment,” he said. “But now they have this glove, they can play in the summer leagues.”
And Fruth is photographing all of it for her second book, “Grassroots Baseball: Route 66.”
Next summer, Idelson and Fruth plan to continue the project, possibly traveling outside of the country for the next incarnation.
“It’s been a blast making our way across the country,” said Idelson. “Wherever we roll up, people want to hear what we’re all about.”