By John Odell
One of my favorite records is not from the pros; it wasn’t even set by an adult. It is a Little League record. The Hall of Fame rarely calls out such marks because there are so many games taking place, encompassing so many levels of competition, that the leagues themselves do not even keep track of them.
Occasionally, though, a youth league accomplishment is so astounding that we learn about it here in Cooperstown. On May 14, 2005, 11-year-old Katie Brownell, the pitcher for the Dodgers in the Oakfield (N.Y.) Little League and the only girl in her entire league, set such a record.
Exceptional Little League pitching performances, while uncommon, are nowhere near as rare as they are in the majors. In youth leagues, the combination of talent imbalances and six-inning games means that good pitchers often strike out many batters.
But on this day, Katie was unhittable in a way I had never heard of before. She struck out every batter she faced in all six innings of the regulation game. Eighteen up, eighteen down. A perfect game. And more than that in my mind, because this was the best performance a pitcher could ever imagine. Striking everyone out in a game is the stuff of daydreams and legends. For a pitcher, this was a perfect perfect game. At our request, she donated the jersey she wore on that day.
Several aspects of this record make it special for me. First, if this record doesn’t make your jaw drop, whether a boy or a girl accomplished it, then you haven’t suffered through the agony of a youth league pitcher walking half a team around the bases, or surrendering hits when he (or she!) keeps the ball around the plate.
Second, Katie was playing baseball because she loved to play baseball. Nothing against other bat and ball games, but if you are a baseball player, there is no substitute. As the curator for Diamond Dreams, our permanent exhibition about the history of women in baseball, I am especially attuned to the challenges girls and women have faced in order to play our National Pastime, even to the point of going to court.
As a culture, we no longer discourage kids from playing baseball because of their skin color or because of a differing ability that puts them at a physical disadvantage to their peers, and I believe that we should not discourage someone from playing simply because she is a girl. In this respect, I think that Katie’s performance shows how our love for baseball can be a uniting force, something that draws us together.
Regardless of how many times other Little Leaguers may have reached this mark of perfection, either before or since, I am thrilled that we can illustrate Katie Brownell’s accomplishment for our visitors in our new exhibit One for the Books.
It’s memories like these that will be brought to life in One for the Books. The exhibit opens Memorial Day Weekend in Cooperstown.
John Odell is the curator of history and research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.