Williamsport, Pennsylvania: Home to history and hardball
In addition to hosting the LLWS, the town was a stop on the Underground Railroad
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – When the sun sets in the hills of central Pennsylvania, it casts a light that feels like it’s from a time gone by. A day when people mainly traveled by riverboat or train, logging was a perfectly profitable business and millionaires lived in grandiose Victorian houses with canopied trees all along wide boulevards. When there was one of everything in town, and that was delightful. In many ways, the Lycoming County seat is idyllically frozen in time.
For all of the hype over movie sets on cornfields in the Midwest, Williamsport is the actual birthplace of Little League, and every year thousands come from across the globe to witness the magical combination of baseball and childhood play for two weeks during the Little League World Series.
None of it is staged or a hallucination, it’s as real as the tears that flow down the faces of players when they realize they have to go home.
When a group of kids excel at the highest level that is made available to them, it engineers exactly one human emotion: hope.
If you head up Bloomingrove Road, past St. Luke Lutheran Church, and look 100 feet up to your left, you’ll find American history. Just off the road, a concrete staircase to nowhere leads you onto sacred ground. There, a couple of dozen historic graves sit peacefully, with flags adorning many, in a quietly regal fashion. If you didn’t stop, you wouldn’t notice it. But if you know it’s there, it’ll change your life.
The site is not exactly unknown, nor necessarily hidden, but few people I asked who’d been in Williamsport for years had ever heard of it. There’s no parking, outside of someone’s carport across the street, trust me. But when you finally get up on it, it’s powerful.
Dedicated in 1993, the marker reads: Freedom Road Cemetery at the top, along with the following:
Daniel Hughes, a lumber raftsman from the Susquehanna, lived here 1854-80. In the years ending with the Civil War, he brought fugitive slaves here from Maryland protecting them before they continued north via the Underground Railroad. Hughes gave part of his land for a cemetery and among those buried here are nine known African American veterans of the Civil War. The cemetery has borne its present name since 1936.
But until about a decade or so, it was effectively unmarked beyond the sign. The fact is, Williamsport’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad is equally as important as anything that’s ever happened in Howard J. Lamade Stadium. And from an instructive standpoint, not one of criticism, it’s probably time for that to change, as far as education goes. When kids arrive to play, in normal times, there’s a certain amount of pageantry. The parade downtown during which all the local businesses show out, and separately, the teams are given a tour of the World of Little League Museum.
In a year in which 16 American teams were chosen because the pandemic meant no international travel, let’s use that as a building block going forward to teach players about a small but important slice of U.S. history right there in town. Nobody’s at fault here at all, just something to add to the curriculum as a point of pride. No reason not to. There is symbolism in what it represents of the past, but the place itself is moving.
The site is now marked with flags, a change that was important for at least one person: the guy who first told me about the place at all. On Aug. 20, he pulled me aside and told me to listen. It was he who gave me the aforementioned instructions on how to get there.
Galen Duffy has been in Williamsport since 1991. He’s been working at the Little League World Series for about half that time as security. Of course, in the homespun nature of the facility, that job is a task that largely involves shuffling journalists and parents around on a golf cart, telling kids to stop running so fast between the ballparks and keeping morale up among those lending their time for the tournament.
The fact that no alcohol is sold on the premises makes the entire nature of the affair more palatable than the average major baseball tournament. But for Duffy, he’s also noticed over the years that the type of people he comes across in town has shifted drastically.
“You never see us doing anything but cook or clean,” said Duffy, 62. “You see us now, we got doctors, nurses. We got people in finance, various important positions. It’s overwhelming to see.”
He’s referring to not just those in town, but the humans he interacts with as part of his job, who come to rural Pennsylvania on a rotating basis every summer. One of those people is Martin Bowman, whose 12-year-old son Jalen played for Upper Providence Little League out of Oaks, Pennsylvania – effectively Philadelphia. He works in medicine, as does his wife.
Jalen is the best player on the team.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and a bunch of big leaguers are walking around the complex, having a normal one. By that, I mean, grown men are elbowing children out of the way to get autographs and young ballplayers are gawking in amazement at their real-life heroes in the flesh.
As they press the flesh, you realize exactly how special this experience is. The Little League Classic, an annual game played at Muncy Bank Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, is later that night, an unforgettable experience for all the teams in the tournament. They get to go, interact with the players and watch them from about as up close as they’ll ever get to be, provided they don’t make it to the majors themselves.
That’s all a long way off for the kid who happens to share the same name as the low-slung ballpark that is now home of the Williamsport Crosscutters, a collegiate summer baseball team in the MLB Draft League that used to be in the minor leagues.
But the effort for the Bowman family, in the moment, is a group one. Jalen is the star of the show. He pitches and plays shortstop, typical for great players at that age. But his dad didn’t play baseball. Neither did his mother. They ran track together at the University of Michigan, where they met. So, when their son wasn’t very good at the game to start with, things weren’t easy.
“I ran track, so I failed a lot,” Bowman, 42, said over breakfast with his other son by his side. “So I knew how important it was to teach that lesson and be resilient and all that. All the things that come along with failing and learning from it. From that aspect of it, I wanted him to stick with it. He couldn’t hit the ball off the tee. I wanted him to work at it. He couldn’t hit it off kid pitch when they started off. I mean, he went a whole season, he went a whole fall season, when he was 7, and didn’t even hit a ball once.”
Pretty amazing progress in a short time for a player who is also a competitive swimmer when he’s not on the diamond. Part of the reason he’s been able to develop is because of not just the family support, but the unit around him. The catcher on the team, Sean Kenney, is one of his best friends. They’ve known each other since they were 10 weeks old at day care. So they stuck with it, and now he’s the kind of kid who jumps up to flex in front of his friends and family after hitting a triple off the wall in an elimination game to get his squad pumped up.
“Basically everyone just encouraged him. Encouraged him to keep going, and it stuck with him,” Bowman explained. “And that moment, he got his first hit. I don’t remember exactly. But when he started hitting, man, that was a sense of accomplishment for me. And there was a sense of camaraderie, as well.”
At that point, a waiter comes over and asks if Bowman has a son in the tournament, and offers up some pins – a Williamsport tradition – to give to him before his next game. The look of joy that comes over his younger brother’s face is far different from the tears that stained his face after he watched him lose with the team the day before.
But Jalen is a resilient kid, and the whitewashed world of baseball isn’t entirely unfamiliar to them, because it’s something Bowman knows well.
“My family grew up playing tennis,” he pointed out. “And so I was his age, watching my brothers, my two brothers at the junior level play. There wasn’t any of us there. So there was a familiarity, I guess. But I knew, despite that, how much you can excel. I mean, it helps to have family around. I wasn’t ever going to say, well, since I don’t see any of us here, right? We’re done. We’re done. It was more like, I don’t care who’s around us. We’re gonna work.”
And show up they did. Bowman brought his five brothers. They came from all over. New Jersey, California, Atlanta, Ohio. They made sure to show up, and that weekend at dinner they were downright overjoyed that baseball, and specifically Jalen, could bring them together again as a unit, even if just for a few days. A couple of Bowman’s boys came as well, and brought their sons. They were at regionals, too, before the team made the LLWS. Bowman knows how much of a difference the whole fam-squad made.
“I had never seen him [like that],” Bowman said, emotionally, referring to the win to get to Williamsport in which his son pitched. “That was an amazing game. I’ll probably always tear up thinking about it. I just wanted him to go out there and play. So I feel the pressure for him to perform, because I know everyone’s kind of counting on his consistency. And so when he went out there, and he did what was expected, when he went out there, started chewing that gum. Which he does like a big leaguer and blowing those bubbles, I knew he was comfortable.”
He saw his kid become a leader right in front of his eyes.
“That last pitch and seeing his reaction made me realize that he realized the moment. And when I saw his two hands go up and he turned and yelled and his buddies came to him, it meant a lot to me.”
That Sunday night, after the two had talked earlier in the day, Jalen yelled a joke to Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie, another lanky Black pitcher with great hair, except, yanno, a major leaguer, it was a special moment. McKenzie had been posting about the fun all day on social media and was having a blast. So, he responded by turning around to the team of youngsters who were sitting right behind the dugout and throwing a ball over the netting as a gift.
It was a perfect strike to his new friend, Jalen.
“I was a crackhead for many years of my life. This place saved me.”
Duffy is talking to me and Xavier Scruggs, a former big leaguer who is on the LLWS broadcast team, and we’re killing time during a weather delay. He’d pulled us aside not out of shame, but to get out of earshot of children.
A stout guy who moves well enough to handle rambunctious kids with a lively vigor, he takes off his sunglasses to reveal his striking blue eyes, and explains precisely how he ever ended up here from Philadelphia at all.
Thirty years ago, he had lost control of his life. A grown man at the time, his addiction was rough enough that his older brother had to make a decision. He had to separate his brother from everything he knew, in order for him to get help.
“This is a recovery town,” Duffy said confidently. “They let me borrow their faith. A lot of us came here and it took their will. Me, myself, I’ve got to wait.”
What he’s talking about is the faith of the town in everyone who passes through. Much like the Underground Railroad site he pointed me to, much like the very citizens of the place who show up year after year to see the players on their way into the next phase of their lives. For Duffy, it was the other way around. And he doesn’t see himself leaving anytime soon.
The reveal was not exactly shocking, but one of those moments when you remember exactly what life was like for so many Black folks just trying to survive in that era. I know full well how hard the crack epidemic hit this country, because all of the scenes that most of you saw on TV about how the drug ravages cities, many happened in my hometown. I’m not talking about The Wire, I’m talking about real-life carnage that not only took lives and devastated communities, but also left many with a feeling of urban post-traumatic stress disorder that’s difficult to describe but impossible to ignore.
Duffy came to Williamsport in 1991. His brother has since died. That year was the year that Washington was the murder capital of the United States of America. The once-bustling, now ho-hum Williamsport had dedicated itself as a location for people to rebuild their lives back in the ’70s, a decision that didn’t come without a lot of controversies.
In February of that year, The New York Times ran a story with the headline Town’s Good Reputation Has Become Its Problem. The Los Angeles Times headline was more direct: Town Troubled by Image as Drug Rehabilitation Haven.
At the time, it was probably a real shock to the system. An old logging town becoming the safety net for nearby cities that were ravaging themselves through what was effectively urban chemical warfare. Yet, it worked. Duffy is a perfect example.
“I’m a property owner. You know? I’ve got two vehicles. I’m mending my family together,” Duffy said with exactly the amount of humility befitting of all the hard work he’s done. “I’m learning to help going through the grace of God. The faith.”
When you think about the interactions you have with people, it all makes sense. Not to say that everyone in Williamsport is in recovery, by no means. But the kind nature of everyday people that allows a large group of children in the public eye to bare their souls in the name of sport, is exactly the kind of place that a person can find some hope for themselves. Whether it’s old ballplayers being reminded of that dreamy time in life, or a guy who was the first Black person to receive the employee of the month award at his hospital back when he first arrived. Again, the magic is real.
“These people, they embraced me. It’s very important for me to point that out,” Duffy said, looking out over the hills. “It’s really overwhelming.”
Hope is real as long as you know where to look. In Williamsport, it’ll be there long after the last out is recorded on the field.