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Originally published Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 11:40 AM

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T-ball pioneer made game a huge hit over 50 years

Jerry Sacharski crafted his first batting tee from metal piping, some pieces of rubber and part of a garden hose. Half a century later he still was coaching T-ball, a game that introduced baseball to millions of kids from backyards to the White House lawn.

Associated Press Writer

ALBION, Mich. —

Jerry Sacharski crafted his first batting tee from metal piping, some pieces of rubber and part of a garden hose. Half a century later he still was coaching T-ball, a game that introduced baseball to millions of kids from backyards to the White House lawn.

Many in this college town of 9,100 give Sacharski the nod for being the architect of T-ball, though that kind of recognition made the longtime teacher uncomfortable. He figured that somebody, somewhere, had previously put a baseball on a tee.

What Sacharski is widely credited with doing is developing a set of rules for the game that allowed young children to play before they'd mastered two fundamental but difficult skills: throwing a pitch and hitting one.

The benefits served them well, from Little League onto the majors.

"I loved it. I have some great memories," said Texas star Michael Young, a career .300 hitter.

In 1954, Sacharski took a part-time job as director of the city of Albion's Recreation Department. To get more youngsters interested in baseball, he figured that having them hit from his jury-rigged tees placed atop home plate would make things easier. Not only could the batter hit, other players could learn to field and throw.

Five teams of about a dozen players each took part in the first season of Albion's "Pee Wee Baseball League," as Sacharski called it. The game debuted June 25, 1956, at Victory Park, and T-ball is still played there.

Within a year or two, organized T-ball leagues were popping up everywhere, says his son, who was among those playing that first season.

"He was very sensitive about being credited with actually inventing the game," says Will Sacharski, now 60 and the youngest of three. "He didn't necessarily want to take credit for that."

His father died Feb. 27 at his home in Albion, about 85 miles west of Detroit. Jerry Sacharski was 93 and had spent the past few years in failing health.

After his funeral here this week, some of the original Albion T-ballers, now in their 60s, reminisced about Sacharski and how the game helped shape who they are today.

Tommy Clark says playing in that first league increased his interest in baseball and boosted his confidence as a player.

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"It was one of the best times of my life," says Clark, now 62 and a retired inspector for General Motors Corp.

Clark, who lives in Albion and became lifelong friends with Sacharski, played for the Davy Crocketts. The team that won the title that year was the Porky Pigs, whose players included Dave Bieskie, who lives across the street from Victory Park.

Bieskie says he enjoyed T-ball but his baseball career ended early - at age 13 - when he got a job delivering newspapers.

T-ball has come a long way since the 1950s.

These days, about 2.2 million children ages 4-7 participate annually in T-ball leagues around this country, according to the T-Ball USA Association Web site. Former President George W. Bush, once a part-owner of the Texas Rangers, held T-ball games on the South Lawn of the White House each year he was in office.

Glenn Hoffman, a former big leaguer who is now the third base coach for the San Diego Padres, said two of his five children played T-ball. "To be able to play in an organized game, a structured game, at that age was a great atmosphere for my kids growing up, before it led them into Little League for the 8-year-olds," he said.

New York Yankees great and now Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly has long maintained that players of all ages can improve their slugging by practicing with a batting tee. All three of his sons have played T-ball.

"Our neighborhood, they had leagues for T-ball to get them started, then they progressed on," he said. "It's funny, because you get kids that are in Little League, they don't want to use the tee anymore because they look at it like this little starting thing that little kids use.

"Then I try to explain to them that guys like Manny (Ramirez) and other guys are all using that. Why wouldn't they want to use it?"

Born Feb. 6, 1916, in West Allis, Wis., Sacharski was a standout basketball player at what was then known as Oshkosh State Teachers College and is now the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

He served in the Army during World War II, reaching the rank of second lieutenant, and played on an armed forces basketball team with several college stars.

From 1951 until he retired in 1980, Sacharski taught at Albion Public Schools - a range of subjects including history, social studies, English and Latin. He also coached high school baseball for many years.

"Everything that he did, the purpose was to teach something," says Will Sacharski, who followed in his father's footsteps to become a teacher and coach.

When Rodney Ferguson took over as Albion's recreation director in 2002, many years after Sacharski had left the job, he discovered that the T-ball league needed to be reorganized and revitalized. Ferguson sought help from Sacharski, who dusted off copies of his rules and field diagrams and showed him T-ball film that he shot in the 1950s.

To Ferguson's surprise, Sacharski also returned to the diamond that year as a T-ball coach, which he continued to do through 2006, when he was 90.

"The big thing with Jerry Sacharski was he invested his time in you to help you be a better young person," Ferguson said.

Will Sacharski said his father seemed to have an unlimited amount of patience with children and a remarkable memory, even late in life, for their achievements long ago. He enjoyed nothing more than talking with his former players - decades later - and reminding them of their outstanding plays.

"I think he knew everybody in town and everything about them," says Doug Fausz, another original Albion T-baller who lived two blocks from Sacharski for about 30 years.

The 61-year-old Fausz, who works for a cleaning service at Albion College, said that one day in 2006, shortly before the city held a 50th-anniversary celebration of its first T-ball season, Sacharski stopped by his home while he was outside and motioned him over to his car.

"The man's 90 years old and he said to me, 'Where were you at 50 years ago today?' and I looked at him and said, 'No clue.' He told me where I was at, what I was doing - I mean, he went through the whole thing."

---

AP Sports Writers Bernie Wilson in Peoria, Ariz., and Stephen Hawkins in Surprise, Ariz., contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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