The One (Wo)Man Band Running the Kenmore Midget Baseball League
Looking at a street light outside the second story window of the Clubhouse, Sarah determined that it was still snowing lightly. The Borough’s maintenance crew had plowed out the parking lot in Kenmore Borough Park in response to her telephone request earlier that day, as she had expected. No one else would have thought to make that call, she mused, and there might have been no place for cars to park otherwise because of the foot of snow that had fallen earlier in the week. Without me, this organization would be only a skeleton of what it is now, she thought.
A couple of cars were still pulling into the parking lot of the Clubhouse, but Sarah prided herself on starting board meetings exactly on time.
With two minutes to go before the digital clock in the Clubhouse hit 7 p.m., Sarah imagined how the scene outside of this window would be different six months hence, the sun still relatively high in the sky and the temperature hovering in the low ’90s, perhaps 70 degrees warmer than it was now. She could almost smell the pungent odor of the mustard that would be spread liberally atop the soft pretzels sold from the concession stand housed in the Clubhouse’s first floor, the pretzels often stale, soggy, and delicious!
She delighted in the smell of the freshly mowed grass, the baseball diamond manicured with care by her two sons.
Among the sounds were a cacophony of dogs barking, babies crying in their mothers’ arms, the chatter of players shouting encouragement to their teammates, and parents and coaches shouting out instructions. And, of course, the occasional “pong” of aluminum striking a ball. “Swing, batter!”
In the scene she conjured up, there were also younger siblings of the players ignoring the action on the field, instead playing tag with each other or catching lightning bugs and grasshoppers, the latter to use as bait to catch sunfish in Kenmore Creek. Midget League, for kids 10-12, was truly an intergenerational activity. Grandparents, and even great-grandparents, would attend games, some making the trip from the parking lot to the temporary stands using walkers.
Her reverie was interrupted by her Blackberry chiming the tune “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” indicating that it was 7 p.m. and time to start the meeting.
“The board meeting will come to order,” announced Sarah Goodling, banging the ceremonial gavel that was presented to her at a board meeting of the Kenmore Midget Baseball League, Inc. two years ago. Two more parents entered the room as she spoke. They quietly took seats around the large folding table and reached in the center of the table for a printed agenda. The gavel had a small plaque on its handle, lauding her for ten seasons of distinguished service as chair of the League. Her re-election this year was again by acclamation; for the past eight years, she had run for the office unopposed. Most board members were parents of players and rotated off the board when their kids aged out of the program and moved up to juniors.
Kenmore Midget Baseball League had operated in Kenmore since shortly after World War II. In the 1960s, the organization had incorporated as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization. It formally incorporated for several reasons, but the principal motivation was to respond to the liability exposure members of the organization thought they might have from injuries players and spectators might suffer as a result of being hit by stray balls. An added benefit of this status was that individuals who made donations to the organization could deduct their value on their federal income tax forms.
League expenses consisted chiefly of equipment, field rentals, insurance, paying umpires, maintaining the fields, and painting the Clubhouse. In addition to an annual dinner dance fundraiser, income came from a modest $50/season fee assessed to players in the league (waived if a family could not afford it) and from tax-deductible contributions by team sponsors whose logos adorned the uniforms, ads sold for the program book, and signs put up on the electric scoreboard. Sarah had been particularly proud of the scoreboard, for which she had found funding by requesting an earmark from a friendly state legislator who himself had played Midgets in Kenmore back in the 1970s.
Substantial additional income came from the brisk business generated by the field’s concession stand, which had been operated by a local restaurant that was served by Sarah’s food distribution business. That relationship was good for the equivalent of two team sponsorships each season. The agreement between the League and the restaurant was that 15% of proceeds would go directly to the League, and as an added bonus, the players playing in the game would receive a free hot dog and lemonade after the final out.
Volunteer parents staffed the concession stand each game, and this was the major activity in which parents engaged that contributed to the League’s operations. The concession stand typically had a steady stream of customers whenever there were games. Many of the customers visited the stand without having any connection to the games, attracted to the reasonable prices for slushies, soft pretzels, roasted peanuts, grilled hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream novelties, and popcorn. It was not unusual for the cash receipts at the end of an evening doubleheader to exceed $700. After each evening, when the concession doors were shuttered, Sarah would personally collect the cash from the register, count it, place it in a cash bag, and make a night deposit at the Kenmore Community Bank, another team sponsor.
Sarah was generally acknowledged as the glue that held all of the pieces together. Those close to the program’s operations knew that she was not only the glue, but for the most part, was the pieces, as well. It was common knowledge that Sarah was indispensible to having a successful season. Almost single-handedly, she recruited coaches, arranged the schedule, hired the field maintenance crew (for the past two years now, comprised exclusively of her twin sons, who had once been stars for Kenmore’s Allstars), ordered bats and balls, recruited sponsors, and made sure the uniforms were ordered.
She attended to every detail, including proofreading the designs of the uniforms to make sure the names of the sponsors were spelled correctly. The first year she had chaired the League, she had delegated that task, and was embarrassed to find that the Kenmore Indians sported jerseys that season sponsored by “Katy’s Jewlers.” Katie, the store owner, had expressed her disapproval, but had been mollified by being offered a free ad in the next year’s program booklet. Sarah never delegated that task again, nor most others.
During the summer, Sarah was a professional volunteer, devoting much of her day to the League while her husband ran the family business. Each season, those who served on the board could count on Sarah to be a busy worker bee, making sure every task was completed. On the wall of the Clubhouse, in addition to team pictures of players and coaches, was tangible evidence of recognition of her efforts, of which she was justly proud. Among them was a copy of a proclamation of Kenmore Borough Council commending Sarah for her achievements, alongside a resolution passed by the State House recognizing her ten years of leadership as chair of the board.
Sitting in the stands watching the games on a warm summer evening was heaven to Sarah, basking in not only the sun, but the glow of knowing that this was a masterpiece she had created. Each year, she had added to this masterpiece until the facility and program were the envy of not only nearby communities, but of those around the state who visited, seeking advice on how to emulate the success of the Kenmore program. This year, she had arranged for the construction of pro-style dugouts, complete with a water fountain, courtesy of a cousin who ran a construction company. He had given her a good price and had completed the work well before the deadline. Among the accoutrements added in recent years were an electric scoreboard, a clubhouse (where this board meeting was being held) that housed the concession stand, and net-enclosed batting cages.
Although she solicited ideas for these improvements at board meetings, she generally decided on her own which new feature she would add. This was a closely guarded secret. Universally, there was admiration among the board for how she found ways to make the program better each year. A few board members might grumble about what they perceived as heavy-handed tactics, but no one disputed that the results she achieved were well worth the occasional ruffled feathers. Most respected the fact that Sarah did her homework before engaging in a project on behalf of the League, and she was not perceived at all to be a loose cannon risk taker. Admittedly, she was aggressive in building the League, and she acknowledged that there was some validity to the saying “you can’t steal second base with one foot on first.”
It was a relief for virtually every board member when they got a notice in their e-mail in January that a board meeting was to be scheduled at the Clubhouse located on the grounds of the Kenmore Midget Field. This served as verification that Sarah was again willing to not only serve as board chair, but likely would make all of the arrangements for the coming season. There was anticipation about what new, creative physical improvements would be made to the fields (or, as sometimes occurred, had already been made in the fall before the construction season came to a halt and before the field was ready for seeding and painting).
Sarah, on the other hand, lived for Midget Baseball, even now that her kids were grown. She was in charge and the League was hers to run without much interference from anyone. In previous years, when she first began taking a leadership role, she had delegated many of the tasks to other parents. But she found that it was rare that anyone else could produce the results required to assure that the product each summer was up to the high quality standards that she demanded and that the kids deserved.
Eventually, parents learned to let Sarah do everything herself and stay out of her way. They knew that Sarah’s commitment would solve any problem that might come up, and it certainly saved them a lot of aggravation to let her do all of this work behind the scenes, which she apparently reveled in doing. On one level, they felt that they were exploiting her, but if she was willing to do all of this work, what was the harm? It wasn’t like they were capitalizing on this by sitting at home eating bon bons. Most parents of players were busy with work, and in the evenings, they did chores, shopping, and helped their kids with their homework. If they were able to squeeze out an hour or two to relax with a shared TV program with their spouse or perhaps one night each week for a movie, they considered themselves lucky.
Being the parents of eleven-year-olds was so much different than it had been for their own parents. Midget League was not the only activity that required their attention. There were music lessons, religious school classes, and any other number of organized activities that required chauffeuring their kids and often waiting until the activity was completed to drive them home.
Almost to a parent, watching their son or daughter play in the Kenmore Midget League was something they looked forward to well before their child reached the eligible age to compete. Because everything about the program was first class, parents from outside Kenmore clamored for the opportunity for their kids to play their Midget baseball in that community. At first, the board had resisted opening up the program to outsiders in nearby communities, but eventually, it embraced doing so. More playing fields were added in Kenmore Park to accommodate the additional demand for teams.
At its peak the previous season, 10 teams of 14 players each were competing in the Kenmore Midget League. It was not unusual for the stands to have crowds exceeding 100 watching the games. Many graduates of the program went on to play high school and college baseball. Although no one had as yet reached the Big Leagues, two former players were playing AA minor league ball and were in a position to be called up to the Bigs in September.
After so many years of doing this work, Sarah could produce results effortlessly compared to having parents do their share and make a mess that she would have the task of cleaning up. Sarah knew which businesses in the community to squeeze for sponsorships, how to avoid scheduling games on religious holidays, which kids needed to be on separate teams, and how to placate the demands of “Little League Dads” who demanded that their teams consist of the best players. Dealing with some of these parents was the toughest part of Sarah’s job, and she often had to serve as the sole arbiter when her coaches were unable to deal with the abuse they had to take for not starting a particular player. Or for taking that player out of a game “prematurely” to let a less talented player meet the League’s requirement that each player on the team plays at least two innings in the field.
Sarah had even dealt with one mom who had heaped a constant tirade of abuse on the home plate umpire. Sarah had calmly informed that mom out of earshot of curious onlookers that her behavior was unacceptable and a violation of League rules—and that if she continued her behavior, she and her son would not only be banned from participating in any further competition, but that her husband would somehow find out who she was spending time with every Wednesday morning. The mom had backed down without indicating which threat had intimidated her the most.
Sarah had boundless energy when it came to League business, although during the season, everything else was relegated to secondary importance. One of her brood, in high school, had grown up in Kenmore Midgets, and was a promising pitcher, scouted by several major league teams. Another was an All-American college wrestler who also played for State on its baseball team. Sarah knew that without the experience of playing Midget baseball, many of the kids in Kenmore would have turned to drugs or a life of crime, and they might very well have become permanently entangled within the criminal justice system.
She was proud of her accomplishments. Several years earlier, she had even been nominated to receive one of the daily “Point of Light” awards, created in response to a call by President George Herbert Walker Bush in his 1989 inaugural address and spearheaded by the Points of Light Institute.
Although she was not independently wealthy, Sarah and her husband ran a successful local food distribution business, and they were more prosperous than most parents with kids on the teams. When she found out that a kid with some talent lacked a glove or proper cleats, she often reached into her own pocket to provide them. She was delighted when one of these kids started calling her “Mom,” and other players started doing this, as well, making her feel proud. In some sense, they were all like her children to her.
In December, Lenny’s Family Restaurant, the restaurant that operated the concession stand, had been forced to close because of lease problems. The owner had decided to move the restaurant to Centertown, more than fifty miles away from Kenmore. This development meant that the League would not only have to find two new team sponsors, but also find another operator for the concession stand.
This new problem didn’t faze Sarah at all, as she was a problem solver. Sarah judged that she could kill two birds with one stone and turn lemons into lemonade, perhaps literally in this case. If her board had no objection, she would propose to take over the concession stand management, and continue the terms of the previous agreement, running everything through her husband’s food distribution business. The revenues she would receive would pay for sponsoring the two teams that the restaurant had sponsored, and more so. She also calculated that doing this would compensate her for some of the countless hours she put in during all of these years of service. And it would solve a big problem, as it could take a lot of effort to find someone else to provide for concessions on short notice.
It would also help stop the constant nagging of her husband, who continually was complaining that Sarah’s devotion to the Midget League, including long hours, was having a harmful effect on the family business and their own relationship, as well. Her husband suggested that it was not fair that Sarah did all of this work without any compensation, while others benefited and did virtually nothing. With no kids in the program any more, her dedication and generosity were being taken advantage of, he persistently pointed out.
Considering how much work went into each successful season, most of it done by Sarah single-handedly, it should be a paid position, he contended.
After consulting with her husband, she wrote down more details of her concession business plan that would bring some income into the household to compensate her for all of the work she was doing, without having to propose to the League that it hire her to do this work in the future. Obviously, if she decided for any reason not to continue doing this work as a volunteer, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the program to continue. She made a note in her Blackberry to add this item to the board agenda, thinking that it was appropriate for the board to consider what she planned to do to solve this last-minute problem.
“The next agenda item is replacing the partnership agreement we had with Lenny’s Family Restaurant to manage the concession stand. I’ve talked this over with my husband, and we are willing to take it on with the same terms of 15% of the revenue going to the League. My business will sponsor the two teams, and we will use parent volunteers as before. Things can go on and we won’t miss a beat.
“Does anyone object?”
1. Was it a problem that the concession stand was operated by a restaurant that had its food distributed to it by the board chair of the League?
2. How different does this situation become if the board chair herself is operating the concession stand?
3. What is the board’s responsibility to question this proposal, and what is an appropriate response?
4. What problems might arise when an organization has one major committed volunteer who does all of the work? What might happen to the organization if that person burns out or otherwise becomes unable or unwilling to perform those duties? What leverage does that person have to make sure the board acts as he/she desires?
5. How should anyone in a nonprofit organization with authority to hire workers do so? What are some of the problems with how Sarah handles this process?
6. Would the governance structure of this organization benefit by having committees?
7. Beginning around the 1990s, the term “midget” became known as a derogatory and offensive term. Discuss how you would handle a situation as the chair of the Kenmore Midget League if a board member offered a motion to change the name of the organization to the “Kenmore Youth Baseball League” and to forbid the use of team names that may have been used in this League for years that might be offensive to some people, such as “Indians,” “Redskins,” and “Braves.” Is it ethical to continue to use the term "midget" and other offensive terms in the name of an organization?
Note: This case originally appeared in “The Nonprofit Management Casebook: Scenes From the Frontlines.”