Lee Johnson family recalls history of Kirkland Little League
By MATT PHELPS
Kirkland Reporter Regional Assistant Editor
May 11, 2010 · 6:59 PM
Many words are associated the Lee Johnson family and Chevrolet dealership like community, generosity and Kirkland history. But for Johnson family members two words depict their childhood more than any others: Play ball.
Brett Johnson, along with family and friends, spoke to the Kirkland Heritage Society at Heritage Hall Wednesday about history of the Kirkland Little League - an organization that Brett's grandfather LeRoy Johnson helped to create.
"Other than bowling in Kirkland, baseball was it," joked Brett. "I remember there was so much excitement on opening day."
But the Sunflower seeds of the first Western Washington Little League were not planted in April of 1951, but nearly 30 years earlier during LeRoy Johnson's childhood.
LeRoy grew up with just his father, who had very little time for his son, including his interest in sports.
"I think dad used sports to escape," said LeRoy's daughter Marylin Stewart***. "His dad never came to his games and he made a promise to always be there for his kids' games."
LeRoy and his family moved to Kirkland's Rose Point neighborhood in 1936, three years after starting the Chevrolet dealership in Kirkland.
Across the country in Williamsport, Penn. Carl Stotz was starting a three team youth baseball league called Little League Baseball in 1938. From there the organization grew at an exponential rate with 12 leagues in Pennsylvania by 1946 and then a wopping 94 leagues all over the nation by 1948. The popularity of the league garners national news attention. But with the popularity and attention, along with the exponential growth, getting a Little League franchise started was near impossible. LeRoy Johnson was determined to put Kirkland on the baseball map and have a place for his kids, including Lee Johnson, a league to play in.
"They were getting hundreds of applications so my dad went to Williamsport to look them in the eye," said Stewart.
The face-to-face application worked, as Kirkland became the first Western Washington city to gain a Little League Baseball franchise. But getting it started was not that easy as LeRoy Johnson would have to raise $800.
"Dad was known for taking someone out for lunch if he wanted something," said Stewart.
Johnson would get donations from many of the Kirkland businesses.
"Dad was most proud that it was a community effort," said Stewart. "Everyone gave something."
But the popularity of the new league caught some off guard. Updates in the Eastside Journal Newspaper helped to raise awareness for raising the funds and getting kids to participate. Kirkland obtained the right to start a Little League franchise the same year the organization went international, with leagues in British Columbia, Canada and Panama.
Originally the franchise was for a four team league with just 12 kids to a team. But over 200 kids came out for spring training in April of 1951. The popularity forced organizers to consider establishing four more teams in the near future. From there the teams had a draft or auction to determine what team those players would be apart of. According to those at the meeting Del Bates was the only Kirkland Little Leaguer from the inaugural teams to make it to the major leagues. Bates played 22 games for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1970.
Many of the friends and family in attendance, and even Heritage Society members, told stories of the opening day festivities. The master of ceremonies was legendary coach Bill McLaughlin, for which Lake Washington High School's football field is named.
Some of the players from that opening day attended the meeting, including Rob Avery who was only 9 years old.
"I was the only one with guts enough to catch Lee Johnson," said Avery. "Plus my dad was the coach."
One of the biggest issues with the early games was the lack of an outfield fence. A rope was used to denote the end of the outfield, which caused consternation between coaches, umpires and parents whenever a batter hit a ball close to the "wall." That consternation was made worse by the fact that players who hit a home run would get a free hot dog.
But the obsession for baseball by the Johnson family was just beginning.
"We lived and breathed baseball," said Stewart, who helped man the first concession stand. "We never went on vacation. We only went to baseball tournaments."
The expansion of the Kirkland Little League was helped along by the building of Everest Field with help from the Kirkland Rotary in 1963 and in 1974 the Little League began a girls league.
In 2001 the Little League celebrated its 50th anniversary by unveiling the bronze statue that sits on the 3rd Street side of baseball field in downtown Kirkland. One year later when Lee Johnson died that field was named for him.
"Dad proposed to mom on the old wooden bleachers at that field," said Brett Johnson.
The entire Johnson family has played baseball in Kirkland, right up to present day. But they are not the only family with strong ties to baseball in Kirkland. The Avery family has had four generations play for the Kirkland Little League. That fact, along with the 1982 World Series Champion Kirkland National Little League team will be a apart of a documentary on ESPN in August.
"I had reels and reels and reels of footage and they went through all of it," said Avery, who brought his scrap book from the championship team for which his son was apart. "They were here for a month and even filmed my 8-year-old grandson ... I think it is going to be like the Miracle on Ice type of thing cause in 1982 Taiwan had never been beaten."
The Kirkland National Little League defeated Chaiyi City, Taiwan, 6-0 during the 36th Little League World Series on August 28, 1982.Contact Kirkland Reporter Regional Assistant Editor Matt Phelps at email@example.com or 425-822-9166 ext. 5052.