The Studebaker Larks’ red jerseys stand out against the winter-yellow grass of the public ballpark, a rugged, bad-hop-afflicted surface on the western outskirts of South Bend, Indiana, not far from the gravel pits of Bendix Drive and the city’s small airport. Jet engines burble in the gray sky, and the day is getting colder by the minute. The South Shore Liners, the Larks’ opponent, huddle in foul territory. Back-to-back league champs, the Liners have an adversarial regard for punctuality.
Larks manager John Pinter ’81 hooks his fingers in the chain-link fronting the dugout.
Second baseman Jay Caponigro ’91 rakes the damp clay with his spikes.
First baseman Milt Lee hollers at the Liners: “Are we playing any baseball today?”
Liners player-manager Mike Hebbeler hollers back, “I’m finishing my speech, Milt!”
It is May 1, 2022, Opening Day of the Sappy Moffitt Baseball League.
Hebbeler’s voice rises as he addresses his team: “What is the South Shore Line?”
I am the newest Liner in the huddle. We wear maroon-and-gold banded jerseys, knee-high maroon-and-gold striped socks and the bulky, pinstriped caps of train engineers. Hebbeler bounces in a pair of purple-laced Nike Land Sharks, cleats he’s owned for 25 years.
“The South Shore Line,” he says, “is a commuter rail that ends in a championship!”
Another Liner counts off, “One, two, three — ”
Dan Graff, first base coach, raises a wooden train whistle to his lips: Toot-toot!
In the top of the first, Liners shortstop Steve Sollmann ’04 doubles. At second, he and Caponigro greet with an embrace, having not seen each other since last season. A batter later, Jake Stone drives Sollmann home.
We’re up 2-0 by the end of the inning, but now it’s time for another delay, because Louis Albarran — the musician who’d been scheduled to play the national anthem, and who shares our affinity for a dramatic entrance — has finally arrived.
The teams stand along the foul lines in the cold while Albarran plugs his electric harmonica into the public address system and uncorks a soaring, eight-minute rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His hands flutter with caterwauling solos. He wanders into bars from other songs entirely. A boy in the bleachers, who’s insisted upon wearing shorts because it’s baseball season, shivers and asks his mother if they can go home.
In the late innings, the Larks stage a rally, spurred by league commissioner Matthew Insley’s color commentary over the public address. In his best announcer’s voice, Insley subtly rags us, not so much anti-Liners as he is pro-end-of-game-drama. “Will Sollmann make the play this time?” Insley drones as a grounder bounces toward shortstop, the tying run on base.
I’m at second today, the first true baseball I’ve played in 17 years.
Oh, the pleasure of fielding a ground ball. The unconscious calculus of feet, hands, angles — the ball skipping along its low vector. Sometimes I swear I can feel the ball in the ground through the soles of my spikes. Today I range on legs grown sluggish with age and sloth, but this, I remember now, was maybe my favorite thing to do in life ever, and the infield clay is the same moondust hue as the dry surface beneath the Rocky Mountains where long ago my father hit me fungoes — how is that possible, or is my memory true, and does it matter? I reach for the ball, soft hands for this hop or fielding through it for that one and, as I gather my feet, my fingers find the rawhide and raised laces in the pocket of my old glove.
We forget these feelings, necessarily so. To dream them back is to seek youth again, to toil in pain or useless sentimentality. But here I’ve relocated the joy between bat-on-ball and fate-deciding throw. What a rare thing, as we age, to be given this, a chance at existentially affirming truth liberated from outcomes. Safe or out, a win or a loss: These things matter much less out here than does the act of play and what it kindles.
After the game, the teams crack open coolers beneath an oak tree down the third base line. John Pinter razzes us Liners for our persistent tardiness. Game two gets underway: Monroe Park Millracers vs. Lowell Porters. Also on the day’s docket: Oliver Chill vs. Battell Ironhides; Du Lac Rockets vs. River Park Longnecks.
I learned about the league from Sollmann a few years ago. We were catching up over a beer when I’d moved back to South Bend after a long while away. At the time, the very description of a “recreational adult baseball league” evoked in me unappealing images of old men in tight pants taking themselves far too seriously, and I was almost viscerally repelled.
I’d grown up in a baseball family whose livelihood and domestic atmosphere had depended, for multiple generations, on what Bart Giamatti called the “slight and fragile circumstances” that separate wins from losses, and to finally shrug the emotional perils of serious competition was something of a relief in my life. Nor could I understand why Sollmann was involved. He and I had overlapped as teammates at Notre Dame, where we’d both played for my father, Paul Mainieri. But whereas I maximized my talent as a career reservist, Sollmann is inarguably one of the best to have ever played at the University. After college, he spent several good seasons in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization before retiring and eventually returning to the University for work. Why was he, of all people, playing in something called the Sappy Moffitt League?
He laughed. “I get it,” he said, “but you don’t understand what this is.”
The Sappy Moffitt League’s 2022 “winter meetings” took place in March, in a conference room borrowed from the rectory of a downtown parish. Representatives from each of the teams arrived in hoodies, flannels, jerseys, coats zipped to chins. Hebbeler showed up a few minutes late, to grudging laughter, the championship pennant tied around his throat like an overlarge ascot.
In civilian life, these people are farmers, laborers, teachers, community organizers. One works in finance, one in marketing. Another is an architect. The youngest team rep at the table was 27, the oldest, 62. Two crucial characteristics united them: a certain nostalgia for a game played in the sunshine and a commendably quixotic attitude toward their community’s challenges.
Commissioner Insley pointed out that the coming summer would mark Sappy Moffitt’s 10th season of play and, with the addition of the River Park Longnecks, the league now had 10 teams. All told, something like 150 players would take part. Insley ran through the essentials. This is a wooden bat league, he said. Teams are permitted one stolen base attempt per inning. Breaking and off-speed pitches are outlawed. If strikeouts accumulate, it’s an issue.
“The pitcher is facilitator,” he continued. “The action is meant to be hitting and fielding.”
“Spirit is, if players aren’t making contact, it’s the pitcher’s fault,” Hebbeler added.
“And it’s on hitters to not be too picky,” Insley continued, describing Hebbeler’s swing-at-nearly-everything approach. “That’s what we want. If everyone played like him —”
“You’d win championships,” Hebbeler cut in. Groans around the table. Insley: “I walked into that one, didn’t I.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Elijah Slabach asked whether the league should consider hiring umpires for the upcoming season. Normally, catchers are responsible for balls and strikes and final decisions on basepath disputes. Slabach, a general contractor and manager of the expansion Longnecks, reasoned that umpires might make games more competitive and reduce the potential for arguments between teams.
The question received fair consideration and some support. Insley said he had looked into umpires, and the cost was manageable if spread among the teams. “But,” he added, “umpires would fundamentally change the league’s tenor. Let’s think of close plays as opportunities to prove our collegiality. And if you get the benefit of the doubt on one play, then give it to the other team on the next one.”
Participation in 2022 would cost $25 per player, a $5 increase from the previous season. Insley explained that the increase would go toward something called the Sappy Moffitt Field Foundation, the nonprofit wing of a nonprofit league. Set aside during the pandemic years, plans for the league’s central civic project — the construction of a vintage-style, publicly accessible ballpark in the city’s urban core — needed revival. The ballpark project, the reps agreed, had to make serious progress in 2022, or it probably never would.
This is not just a South Bend problem. In many ways, organized baseball has become the standard-bearer of a professionalizing mindset that has turned American youth sport into a $19 billion marketplace.
Nowadays, Matthew Insley is the chief sustainable farmer at Saint Mary’s College, a role well suited to his ability to imagine growth in urban landscapes. Mike Hebbeler, an artist, writer and teacher, directs prison education programs for Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. Back in the spring of 2013, they were new friends watching a South Bend Silver Hawks game and reminiscing about their past baseball lives when they stumbled upon a simple question: Why is baseball always the thing we “used to do”?
Consider how peculiar it would be to ask another adult whether they play baseball, present tense. It’s not the same as asking whether he or she plays basketball or golf or any of the games respectable adults still play. But, they reasoned, if you can catch and throw, then you can still play baseball, and if that’s what you want to do, you should have the opportunity to do so.
They didn’t set out to start a league. Both men are adamant on this point and insist I not credit them with the idea. “We only wanted to play baseball,” Hebbeler says. Insley asks whether I might refrain from mentioning him in this story altogether. I tell him with regret that, no, this won’t be possible.
Point is, all they meant to do was organize a single baseball game.
They wondered whether they’d even find enough interest. At a table outside O’Rourke’s on Eddy Street they made a napkin list of potential players. They composed an email with a Field of Dreams allusion in the subject line: “Baseball, Ray, baseball.” In it, Insley wrote:
Mike Hebbeler and I announce a game of baseball to take place on June 29, 2013, between two amateur sides, composed of friends and relatives and acquaintances. The game will be baseball — 90-foot base paths, 60’6” from mound to plate, and a regulation hardball. Wooden bats. Overhand pitching.
The invitation seemed to tap into a pervasive, unacknowledged desire. More than enough people for two teams affirmed they would play.
Local affection, to borrow Wendell Berry’s term, was essential to the conception. They designed jerseys and hats, which, Hebbeler points out, “fed into ideas of identity and connection to place and others.” They named one side the Monroe Park Millracers after the mill-powering waterways that turned South Bend into an industrial hub of the late 19th-century Midwest. The other they called the South Shore Liners in honor of the South Bend-Chicago interurban railway.
On game day they commandeered a public ballfield, a sort of pirate affair. Families attended. The local chapter of the Catholic Worker, where Insley was living and working at the time, grilled hot dogs and raised money. Memories are foggy, but Hebbeler thinks someone’s domesticated goats were present.
Going into the final inning, the Liners led. The Racers rallied, “but the fatigue from not having played in 20 years set in, and a lazy fly ball ended the game,” according to Hebbeler’s written recap. “A young girl helped carry her father’s glove to the car and asked, ‘Papa, do you think someday I can play?’”
The game was so much fun, they did it again the following year. Two more teams formed. John Pinter, an original Liner, founded the Larks and started asking folks, “Hey, do you play baseball?” The fledgling league beckoned people whenever they heard of it. Memory flashed in their eyes, furtive, timid, and they’d whisper, “Do you mean, like, real baseball?”
More teams meant more games, and that was that. The organization needed a name. Elmer “Sappy” Moffitt was a farmer from nearby New Carlisle, Indiana, who made his name pitching for the South Bend Greens of the early 1900s. In local baseball annals, he remains one of the most prolific professional pitchers in city history. His life seemed partly emblematic of the game’s early history in the region, how it existed in the tension between the city’s industrial identity and agrarian roots.
Mostly, Insley recalls, “the name ‘Sappy’ just seemed perfect.”
Rare among the league’s rosters are those who played in college or beyond. Most participants had baseball taken away from them as kids or had burned out in the late-date fashion of American youth sport, where overuse, specialization and the humorless exaltation of individual triumph have become commonplace. Consider Insley, who played his last season of organized baseball in the eighth grade. Excluded from his town’s travel club, and consequently his high school team, he gravitated toward other sports and attended college on a football scholarship.
Hebbeler represents the other side of the coin. A southpaw whose family was courted by sports agents and independent coaches, he says he “didn’t throw a pitch past age 12 where my arm did not hurt.” He welcomed his goodbye to the game once it came.
John Pinter estimates that the Larks’ individual careers peaked on average in seventh grade. Charlie Broden, frequent engineer of clutch RBIs for the Liners, was a high school senior in 2022 who’d been cut (perplexingly, in my opinion) from his school team that spring. Social worker Jeff Zwart, who plays right field for the Liners, had never played baseball until he joined the league in his 40s. In many ways, Zwart exemplifies the league’s core values of simple play, fostering community and care for the local.
Pinter says playing baseball is a “really good way to connect with others, to meet people of different backgrounds, to deal with difficult things.” He is executive director of the United Religious Community of St. Joseph County, which, among other things, steers the city’s refugee resettlement program. Last year, South Bend welcomed 32 Afghan refugees. Through Pinter’s work, the Larks have dressed out refugees and immigrants as well as international scholars on summer fellowship at Notre Dame. One of my favorite league anecdotes tells the story of a young man from Ivory Coast who pinch hit for the Larks in the first baseball game he’d ever seen. Hands several inches apart on the bat handle, he laced a base hit, and both teams erupted with cheers.
You don’t have to look far to find kids who’ve never had the chance to play baseball.
Two years ago, Insley volunteered to coach fifth-and-sixth grade baseball at South Bend’s Holy Cross School, where they no longer had a team. In 2021, three kids came out to play. In 2022, the roster jumped to 15. “The formula is pretty simple,” he told me. “You invite kids and teach them how to play and make it fun. They’ll tell their friends and classmates.”
“It’s a real struggle to keep the league alive,” says John Krzyzewski, who manages the youth baseball program in the Inter City Catholic League (ICCL) where Insley’s team plays. I played in this very same league in the mid-1990s, when most if not all of the 16 member schools had multiple teams, with at least one at both the grade-school and middle-school levels.
These days, Krzyzewski says, maybe one school a year fields its own baseball team. He pulls other teams together by merging rosters across schools. In 2022, the ICCL included five middle-school teams and eight fifth-and-sixth-grade teams.
This is not just a South Bend problem. In many ways, organized baseball has become the standard-bearer of a professionalizing mindset that has turned American youth sport into a $19 billion marketplace, where a kind of exclusionary, commercial sclerosis inhibits the long-term health of the game at every level. Interconnected issues of accessibility and interest are prevalent all around the country.
We can point to a wide range of sociocultural factors over time, but the most frequently cited is “travel ball” — a primarily economic model wherein nationally affiliated teams entice players and their parents away from school and Little League programs by marketing better skill development and a near-monopoly on the exposure necessary for future collegiate and professional opportunities.
It’s also very expensive, with participation costs often exceeding several thousand dollars per year. I’d argue that travel ball is but the logical outcome of certain dearly held American values, or vices, depending on your frame of reference —- free enterprise, individual exceptionalism, greed.
The long-term consequences of this dynamic — which include the fact that not a single United States-born Black player appeared on field in the 2022 World Series — are on display in cities like South Bend, where a child’s chance merely to be exposed to the game has vanished from entire neighborhoods. In such places, the stories of a vibrant baseball past are long forgotten, along with any sense of the civic role the game once played in communities of all stripes.
Today, South Bend has no city-sponsored youth rec league. Little Leagues might do the best they can and still starve for players. And when public and private schools struggle to field teams or are forced to cut their programs, the incentives to build and maintain public ballparks dwindle. For Insley’s Holy Cross team to play games, the kids must travel to a sparkling youth sports complex 13 miles away from the school. For many of the players’ working-class families, that’s a tall order.
Baseball’s mortal illness is an annual springtime refrain in the national media, and though this has inspired many well-intentioned, corporate-style efforts to reignite youth interest in baseball, it seems to me that the most sustainable and equitable future for the game rests not in top-down initiatives but in the compassionate stewardship of the game at the local level.
This is an old ballpark sound, a sound that would have been familiar on the very first baseball diamonds. The game’s myth of rural origins is false. Early baseball was a city game, a way to rediscover the pastoral within increasingly mechanized lives.
At Southeast Park, a hexagonal backstop of weathered planks and chain-link fence rises from the coarse grass of the otherwise empty field, as if someone long ago half-dreamed a ballpark but abandoned the idea on the spot. I picture Insley sailing past it on his bicycle back in 2013, just as he and Hebbeler have begun wondering aloud about pickup baseball. Insley is river bound, biking toward church or the farmer’s market, when the dream waylays him, like the kid ascending the Polo Grounds bleachers in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, arrested by the “unfolding vision of the grass that always seems to mean he has stepped outside his life.”
As he watches, children play on the park’s concrete splash pad and basketball court near what he envisions as the ballpark’s third base line. A timeworn industrial corridor of brick buildings and weed-choked lots cradles right field, and the retaining wall of the Norfolk Southern railroad marks left. A westbound train rattles across the graffitied High Street trestle.
This is an old ballpark sound, a sound that would have been familiar on the very first baseball diamonds. The game’s myth of rural origins is false. Early baseball was a city game, a way to rediscover the pastoral within increasingly mechanized lives. Insley know this. Here, in the old factory town of South Bend, Indiana, it is a farmer’s gaze that beholds the garden to be.
The Sappy Moffitt Field Foundation became a reality in 2018, after Insley began describing his vision to others like Hebbeler, who helped develop the project into an organic enterprise in partnership with the neighborhood. Foundation members met with the Southeast Organized Area Residents, Inc., (SOAR) to present the idea. Kevin Buccellato ’00, an architect and center fielder for the Lowell Porters, drafted architectural plans and renderings that depict a ballpark open to the community’s tree-lined streets and a game underway beside a passing freight train.
Other important community organizations have joined the conversation. The Boys & Girls Club and the South Bend Community School Corporation began to explore and articulate the needs this new ballfield could meet. Larks first baseman Milt Lee, director of the schools’ K-12 athletic programs, is an essential visionary for the project. The History Museum and the Civil Rights Heritage Center became research partners. Students in Professor Katherine Walden’s Baseball and America course at Notre Dame began researching local baseball history.
As the 2022 Sappy Moffitt season unfolded, the Field Foundation won official support from the city’s parks department, and the project evolved into one that reconnects this cultural heritage with what might be made anew.
The ballpark will be called Foundry Field: Home of the Giants.
In South Bend’s heyday, through the first half of the 20th century, some of the best baseball in town was played in the Industrial League, a coalition of factory workers who played at grand ballparks built by companies such as Singer and Studebaker. Some parks back then could seat as many fans as Four Winds Field, the home of the minor league South Bend Cubs, does today.
The Foundry Giants were comprised of Black foundry workers at Studebaker, the carmaker, and though they were one of the strongest teams in town, they were excluded from the primarily white Industrial League’s all-star-like games on weekends.
Foundry Field, in the eyes of SOAR president Conrad Damian, will fit just so within the neighborhood. It will be a place where people of different backgrounds work and play together, where they can care for what’s already present and shepherd what’s to come. Thomas “Detour” Evans, an artist whose recent Jackie Robinson mural overlooks the minor league ballpark in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will paint the first of Foundry Field’s outfield wall murals — a portrait of the Giants — in conversation with the community. Memorialization, education and creation are key.
And that’s how a ballpark becomes a magical device for generating the connective stories of our shared future.
On the field, however, this peaceable idyll is not always on hand.
Don’t get me wrong — to compete can be great fun, and in the right context it is a good and necessary virtue. But when the desire to triumph overrides every other reason for playing a game, then we’ve stamped on ourselves an unseen expiration date. Sooner or later, the drive becomes self-consuming. This is the truth at the bottom of whatever else ails baseball. We’re built to favor the bitter taste of gainless victory, and we shape our games to fit.
It happens, even in the Sappy Moffitt League.
It’s August, the last inning of a divisional title game at the ballfield near the airport. The Liners cling to a one-run lead over the Porters. Two outs, but the tying run loiters at second in the form of R.J. Jones, a burly commercial roofer who led the inning off with a double.
I tend the clay at second base and threaten myself — you better make this play — because the ball is wont to find you when your focus wanes or your body is a wreck, and this is our third game in a week, far too many for those of us pushing 40 or 50 and whose fitness regimen consists mainly of 16-ounce curls after the game.
Kevin Buccellato ambles to the plate in the admirably hideous uniform of the Porters: orange socks, banana-yellow pants, brown-and-yellow jersey. A spry New Jersey Italian, Buccellato has sparkplug written all over him. He digs in, holds the bat flat like Rod Carew.
The Liners’ ace, St. Joseph County circuit court judge John Broden ’87, rocks and fires. Buccellato slaps a sharp grounder toward third. I feel a swell of relief.
Kevin McMahon — 32, kindergarten teacher, one of our best defensive players — fields the ball cleanly. Buccellato tears toward first, but the trim arc of McMahon’s throw says he’s a dead man running, another one-step victim of baseball’s profound geometry. A Liners triumph is all but assured.
Ryan Dainty ’08M.Div., our own catcher, is the only one who can see that our first baseman is off the bag when he receives the throw. “Safe!” Dainty calls.
Dainty, 40, is the dean of students at a high school and a Sappy original, having caught for the Liners in the very first game in 2013. He often brings his children to our games, sits them in the dugout and hollers over to them between pitches.
The integrity of Dainty’s call saves us from the consequences of vain competition. It’s not easy to summon in the heat of the moment, but this is what Insley had meant back at the winter meetings when he’d argued against hiring umpires. And it is better this way, even when Porters shortstop Tommy Chase ’12 drives in the tying run and the Liners lose in extras, ending our quest for a three-peat. Dainty, for all of us, has remembered what actually matters.
We gather down the line with coolers and laugh together. Rockets vs. Millracers gets underway. Insley fries smashburgers on a griddle to raise money for Foundry Field. His only stipulation is that orders be named for favorite ballplayers, and I overhear families ask for Puckett and Larkin burgers, Koufax and Judge burgers.
Foundry Field has raised enough money to complete phase one, which includes the playing surface, the backstop, a right-field hedgerow, landscaping, irrigation and the first of the murals. There remains a long way to go, as phases two and three include the dugouts, a vintage scoreboard, a covered grandstand, a public pavilion and further arts, storytelling and education projects. Still, as of this writing, the project is moving forward with a planned spring 2023 groundbreaking.
But go back with me one more time to an evening late last summer, when the ballpark’s fate teeters in uncertainty. Foundation members and neighborhood residents are gathering at the site to formally announce it, answer questions and, we hope, stoke wider interest.
Lines are chalked. Bases rest on the grass. The sun sets perpendicular to the third base line, just as it should in a ballpark. Near home plate, easels display Buccellato’s architectural drawings and the typography of Clinton Carlson, a Millracer and Notre Dame professor of visual communication design.
Many Sappy players arrive in dirt-stained uniforms — Ironhides, Arrowheads, Saints, Chill — directly from league games across the city. Elmer “Sappy” Moffitt’s great-great-granddaughter, Kelsi Moffitt Rakevet, a newly integral project partner, chats with Buccellato over a cooler. John Pinter tells me that Jay Caponigro launched the game-winning home run for the Larks that afternoon. It was a “Sappy home run,” he clarifies, a double that became a round-tripper by virtue of throwing errors.
Few notice the neighborhood boy who sidles up to home plate.
He’s 10 years old and has lived in the neighborhood his whole life. He doesn’t own a glove. His school doesn’t have a team. He’s never played baseball, has never even seen it played. A couple days earlier, as a crew filmed a short video on location for the fundraising campaign, he had wandered out from his house, pointed to a baseball bat and asked what it was.
Quietly, as the sun drops and a train screeches from the east, the boy takes a phantom swing and lopes toward first.
More eyes rise to catch the boy as he rounds second, a wide grin on his face.
By the end of the fall his aunt will have bought him a glove and a bat, and he’ll await spring. What he’ll need to play the game will soon be here, walkable for him and his friends. Who knows what might follow, what will come from having that option.
But see him now as he windmills his arms in that peerless inertia of the turn at third, the turn toward home. He sprints, smiling, as we drop our conversations and buoy him toward safety on a swell of cheering voices.
Porters manager Sean Kennedy grabs the mic: “The first Foundry Field home run!”
When so much in the world seems so imperiled, what could be more worthwhile than building a garden with your neighbors in the middle of the place that you share?
Nicholas Mainieri serves as the transition program director in academic services for student-athletes at Notre Dame and is the author of a novel, The Infinite.