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The Man Behind the
T-Ball

by Rich Wilhelm

Dean Fisher, a pioneering developer of the children’s sport/rite of passage now known as T-ball, was initially inspired by watching very young kids attempt to play baseball, with disastrous results.

“I first got interested in some type of a game using a batting tee back in 1947, after I got out of the service,” says Fisher, who was living in Maywood, Calif., at the time. “A friend of mine named Larry Riggs was coaching small kids in baseball. They were playing with a regular baseball and the scores were something like 32 to 27 or worse.” The problem was that nearly every run scored was the result of walks, since the pitchers couldn’t find the plate and, as a result, nobody hit the ball.

Fisher noticed that Riggs was using a stick to hold the ball up during practices to help players with their swing. Fisher refined the stick idea, building a tee made out of a rubber home plate, two pieces of radiator hose and a dowel. He then wrote the rules for a game in which players would swing at a ball as it rested on the tee.

The T-ball concept really took off for Fisher after he moved from Maywood to Downey, Calif., and created the Tiny Instruction (T.I.) league of 16 T-ball teams for the Downey Junior Athletic Association. Other nearby towns began to notice Downey’s T-ball league and to request a set of rules from the athletic association. Eventually, a Downey park director went to a conference in Chicago and made a presentation on T-ball to a group of recreation directors. Following this conference, the Downey Junior Athletic Association began to get a steady stream of requests all across the country for information on T-ball.

One of Fisher’s favorite memories of his T-ball years concerns an early “Dime a Dip” fundraising program the T-ball league had toward the end of its first season. “Parents all brought a dinner dish and everyone paid a dime for each helping of food to raise money for the program, then everyone ate while watching an exhibition game between the two top teams.” The final score of the game was 2-1, which indicated to Fisher that the kids had learned something over the course of the season. “I couldn’t believe how much they’d improved,” Fisher says.

Fisher believes that the success of T-ball as a way to teach young kids how to play baseball lies in the fact that every time a kid comes up to bat, there’s a hit, a fielding play and a throwing play. “In old-time baseball, kids would stand in the outfield and never see a ball come their way during the entire game,” says Fisher.

According to Fisher, the big difference between the original incarnation of T-ball and how it is played today is the level of competition. “Nowadays, they tend to make it a little bit more competitive,” says Fisher. “With T.I. leagues, kids just got out there and it didn’t matter whether they won or lost, as long as they had the opportunity to play. Now, sometimes, it’s too sophisticated, with too much pressure, but that’s the way it often is with any kind of sport.”

Fisher, a member of ASTM International Committee F08 on Sports Equipment and Facilities, has been most involved with Subcommittee F08.53 on Headgear and Helmets. During Fisher’s time with F08.53, the subcommittee has branched out from having a football helmet standard to developing standards for a variety of non-motorized sports activities.

Working with athletic headgear was a natural outgrowth of Fisher’s work as a senior vice president of Bell Sports, a company known for
producing motorcycle and bike helmets, as well as other types of athletic headgear. Fisher retired in 1999, after 32 years at Bell.

Although he would later deal extensively with copyrights and patents during his tenure at Bell Sports, Fisher never tried to copyright or patent his idea for T-ball. “I took the game to a couple different sporting goods outfits,” Fisher says, “but they weren’t interested — they said, ‘That’s not baseball.’” Later, Fisher says, both companies put out T-ball kits. These days, “everybody seems to think I got rich off of it,” Fisher laughs, “but I didn’t make a dime.”

Not surprisingly, a quick Internet search will reveal other people who claim to have “invented” T-ball. Fisher is philosophical about this, and secure about his relationship to the game. “Maybe someone in Alaska came up with it before us, I don’t know. If I had been a little smarter and done some copyrighting and patenting, I might have made some money from it,” he says. “But I don’t really care. I was just making a game up for kids, and kids are still having fun with it. That’s what counts.”

Copyright 2004, ASTM International