By Tim Klein
Over 30 Years in the Dugout…
Play Ball Indiana (PBI) is a hugely successful program that provides inner city youth in Indianapolis the opportunity to play baseball and softball each summer. The program, which has around 1,400 participants ranging from ages 5 to 18, is associated with the national Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. RBI is run by Major League Baseball, which awarded PBI a franchise in 1997. PBI, however, has a history that began many years before RBI even came into existence.
The story of PBI begins with Milton ‘Milt’ Thompson, currently an attorney at BleekeDillonCrandall and President and CEO of Grand Slam Sports Marketing, and his friend Jim Young. Thompson and Young started a program that focused on allowing inner city youth to play baseball in 1981. A similarly focused junior tennis program run by Arthur Ashe inspired Play Ball Indiana.
“I was a young lawyer at the time, and I kept seeing kids come in for stealing cars,” Thompson said. “So I thought to myself, why don’t they steal bases instead of cars.”
This idea became reality as Thompson put together money from donations to create a team and eventually a league, Indiana Amateur Baseball Association (IABA). In 1981, IABA was composed of three leagues; six teams in a junior varsity league (freshmen and sophomores), eight in a varsity league (juniors and seniors), and another eight in a collegiate league. IABA’s original board of directors was composed of college and high school coaches. Thompson then asked the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) for permission to use high school uniforms and fields. The IHSAA granted permission, and Thompson then went about the seeking non-profit status for IABA.
The non-profit status became especially important when Thompson and Young went to the Indianapolis Indians seeking a grant that would allow them to pay for umpires, uniforms, bats, balls, and other costs associated with running the league. The Indians told Thompson and Young that the club would provide a $10,000 grant only if IABA obtained its tax-exempt status.
Remarkably, Thompson got tax-exempt status for IABA in just six months. So, while Thompson and Young were in Cleveland for a tournament, an Indians representative dropped off the 10,000 dollars, but not the way Thompson expected.
“They gave us 10,000 dollars worth of baseballs, which was great, but not exactly what we were expecting,” Thompson said, “We had find a way to pack up all the balls in an old station wagon and drive them all back to Indy.”
Next, Thompson struck a deal with Marion College, raising money to renovate its baseball diamond in exchange for IABA leagues being able to play on campus.
In 1996, Thompson made a decision that would impact PBI to this day. He hired Mike Lennox to serve as the program’s first Executive Director.
“I was the first full time executive director. I helped with organizing, fundraising, and outreach programs,” Lennox said.
A year after Lennox got involved with IABA, he heard about the national RBI program and applied for affiliation. IABA’s application was approved in 1997, and shortly afterwards IABA joined the RBI program and changed its name to Play Ball Indiana (PBI). Along with the name change, the program shifted to a boys-only league from the ages of 13 to 18.
Immediately after the league reformed, it essentially started over. According to Lennox, there were 16 teams in one league, all from IPS middle schools.
“We provided all the equipment, the uniforms, and paid the umpires for them,” Lennox said.
But the change also came with challenges. “We were short money, volunteers and cooperation,” Max Hittle, former board member, said.
As the years passed, however, PBI kept expanded at a rapid rate. At its peak around 2004, Play Ball Indiana had about 500 teams and 5,000 kids in the program, according to Lennox. Teams were spread across Indiana, from Bloomington to Fort Wayne. However, the board of directors later decided that the program needed to get back to its roots, inner city baseball. To do so, the board reduced the program’s size from 5,000 players to 500, with all of the teams participating located in Indianapolis.
Today, PBI is thriving, and has increased to 1,200 to 1,500 kids. PBI sends three all-star teams, one girls’ team and two boys’ teams, to a regional tournament each year with a chance to play in the RBI World Series if they come in first.
Through it all, Play Ball Indiana has remained a program dedicated to allowing the youth of Indianapolis the opportunity to play organized baseball.
“(Helping the program) was a really fun and rewarding thing to do during my active years,” Hittle said. “I think we’ve had an impact on crime, education and social ills. And that’s why I’m most grateful,” Thompson said. “When you see kids get a scholarship, or kids join a team and not a gang, that’s when you say, this is worth it.”
Ed. Note – Tim Klein is a sophomore at Indiana University studying journalism.