Zionsville Little League is celebrating 70 years of history with an eye on continued growth in the future.
The ZLL is conducting a ’70 for 70′ fundraiser to raise money for park improvement projects and to build new playing fields. A celebration was held in the spring with food and bounce houses for all teams and the community.
The ZLL was founded in 1953 before the Town of Zionsville even had subdivisions. Back then, the program was only for boys ages 10 to 12, and games were played on one diamond in Lions Park. Since then, the volunteer organization has grown exponentially.
“Little League International started in the late 1930s and caught on fairly quickly,” ZLL Information Officer Bernie Paul said. “The program had much less structure than it does now.”
ZLL is an all-volunteer organization that serves youth ages 4 to 12, offering T-ball, baseball and softball programs.The program also offers a Challenger League for children with special needs.Teams play and practice at Lions Park, a private park owned by the Zionsville Lions Club.
“About 12 years after Lions Park opened was the time the Lions helped initiate the Little League in 1952,” ZLL Co-Sponsorship Officer Nathan Welch said. “Our opening day was in spring of 1953.”
Paul said that in the 1990s, more baseball fields were added to Lions Park as part of a renovation. A large part of the ZLL budget goes toward maintenance of the playing fields and facilities during the spring, summer and fall, according to the organization.
“It is kind of the crown jewel of Zionsville youth sports because it is a great place to go watch your kids play, plus any kids who are not in the game can play on the playgrounds,” Paul said. “We have been playing at that park for 70 years, essentially. We help care for the park, and they let us use their fields. It just has a really nice community feel.”
During the 2023 spring season, the ZLL had a combined 105 teams in all leagues.
“Something that makes ZLL unique compared to others is that we also offer a youth umpire program starting at age 12,” said Torrye Kampen, ZLL Board President. “Many of our past players submit an application to be a youth umpire, go through a training program and then umpire our games. It allows for kids to grow some confidence and face adversity.”
Paul said many communities are struggling to grow their Little League programs and maintain registration levels with the introduction of travel teams.
“Ten years ago, we had nearly 950 kids in the program, and that was before we added T-ball,” Paul said. “We now have close to 1,300 kids. A big accomplishment for the Little League is that we have grown even though more kids now participate in travel programs.”
Paul said one of the biggest things that has changed the ZLL in the last 70 years was the addition of softball.
“With the addition of softball, the number of eligible participants basically doubled,” Paul said. “Softball has turned out to be our most successful in terms of accomplishments.”
The ZLL’s 12-and-under girls softball team advanced to the Little League World Series two years ago. Many ZLL baseball and softball teams have also made it to the state competition multiple times and enjoyed measures of success.
Another recent change is that ZLL now offers spring and fall seasons instead of only one season.
Some former ZLL players have made it to the major leagues and speak fondly of their memories of playing ball in Zionsville.
“Tucker Barnhart, who is now the catcher for the Dodgers and has two Gold Glove awards with the MLB, has been quoted saying how much he loved playing at Lions Park,” Welch said. “His kid is involved in the league now as well.”
According to Kampen, the ZLL is the longest-standing youth sports organization in Zionsville.
“There is something special about Lions Park,” Kampen said. “People love being there and bringing their kids there. Over the last seven years that I have been on the board, we have offered a consistent program where families know what to expect. We have a nostalgic community, which is why I think the ZLL marries well with our families.”
Paul said people enjoy baseball and softball because everyone’s kids get a chance to play.
“If you play football or soccer, it is usually the top athletes that completely dominate everything,” Paul said. “In baseball, one kid cannot do it all. Everybody gets a chance to perform, and everyone has to do their job.”
Kampen, Welch and Paul want to continue to improve the program and facilities offered in the future.
“I think we will continue to grow as Zionsville’s population increases, and our biggest challenge will be facilities,” Paul said. “We are almost at capacity now with the nine fields at Lions Park.”
In the spring, tee ball games are held at Mulberry Fields.
“The tee ball experience, in my opinion, is not as fun for the kids at Mulberry Fields because essentially we are just throwing down plastic bases on a grass field,” Welch said. “It would be nice to even have tiny fields for these kids with a permanent installation they could enjoy.”
For more information about the ZLL fundraiser, visit zionsvillelittleleague.org/2023/09/07/zll-begins-70-for-70-fundraiser/.