Fifty years later, they're still teaching fundamentals and charging less than 10 bucks for a summer of baseball.
It's hard to say what is most impressive about Wildcat baseball, but I'll take a stab at the three most indispensable assets: vision, longevity and love.
The vision was set in motion by Dale McMillen – Mr. Mac – and that legendary day when he saw the despondent boy who'd just been cut by the Little League team. Mr. Mac wanted to fix a wrong.
Everybody plays. That was the vision. That is the vision. From that day at the start of the turbulent decade of the 1960s, Wildcat baseball would be different. It would never morph into a case of money or connections, or whose dad was coaching which team. It would always be about everyone playing, everyone learning the game and everyone being treated as equals.
McMillen flexed some muscle and some financial heft within his vision, no question. Here's a man who brought Jackie Robinson, Bob Feller and Ted Williams to town. Here's a man who found a way to make sure 4,000 children took a train to a Cubs game. Mr. Mac wasn't in Wildcat for himself, but he threw himself into Wildcat.
I remember talking with the late John Grantham, who cultivated Mr. Mac's vision for decades. We were looking at one of the photos Grantham had assembled for the Wildcat Reunion at the Grand Wayne Center in 1994.
A young boy, Kywon Floyd, has a cast on his right arm, covered in ball-diamond dirt, and he's holding a blue ribbon for participation in the league. Not for winning one of the contests at Mr. Mac Day, but just for participating.
“A 12-cent ribbon,” Grantham said, “and look at the pride on that boy's face.”
That photo was one snapshot of the vision, where the young baseball player doesn't sit disheartened by the cruel world of baseball rejection, but stands, beaming, at baseball inclusion.
Nothing lasts 50 years without significant changes, alterations, permutations, and stops and starts.
Nothing except Wildcat baseball, that is.
A half-century from the day it was invented, Wildcat remains as true to its core beliefs as any entity in Fort Wayne.
The sites have changed, and been reduced to an extent, but there are still 11 sites and 3,000 young players taking on a daily routine that remains stunning in its consistency.
Site directors and their staffs teach the game the way they always have. Fundamentals of throwing. Fundamentals of fielding. Proper batting stances. How to pitch. How to catch. How to rebound when you've had a day where the ball didn't go where you wanted to throw it, and it bounced out of your mitt when you tried to catch it.
They play games. They embrace competition. But, again, everyone plays.
Young Wildcat players grow up to become volunteers, teachers and eventually parents, and back into the mix go their children. It's a beautiful cycle that explains the longevity.
Sports Illustrated ran a story on Wildcat some years ago. They could reprint it today, with some names changed, and it would stand as completely accurate.
Change can be good, but with Wildcat baseball, there's no change for change's sake. It was solid when it was started. It's solid today.
There's a group of men who don't want to be the focus of Wildcat's 50th anniversary, and their humility is admirable. The core four of Bill Derbyshire, Jack Massucci, Gerry Tilker and Gary Rogers were never in it for the publicity. They were never in it for accolades. Like Mr. Mac before them, and Grantham after Mr. Mac, they embraced the Wildcat way because they believed in it.
I was honored to join my colleague, Blake Sebring, as part of the Wildcats 50th anniversary committee, lending input on ways to celebrate and publicize the event.
Every time we met, Derbyshire would emphasize that the celebration was about Wildcat, not about the men who have run the league, and that was the template for any plans.
In that one directive, Derbyshire captured how love has kept Wildcat alive and thriving.
The focus has always been about the kids who play in the league. That's what draws directors and adults and teenage coaches back every summer. Derbyshire, his friends and those who came before were never in it for the money. They were in it for love. These men have spent their summers with Wildcat most of their adult lives. That's love.
Wildcat baseball now has a legacy of 50 years of kids benefiting from the adults following Mr. Mac's vision.
Everybody plays. And there's no end to the Wildcat game in sight.