Lithuanian Baseball Association
Founded in 1987
IBAF and CEB Member from 1991
The familiar words of "Tinker, to Evers, to Chance" from the poem, "Baseball 's Sad Lexicon", recall the 1910 Chicago Cubs' famous double play combination and are words recognizable to any diehard American baseball fan. As one travels the globe far from the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to a place in the former Soviet Union, the familiar refrain would be "Stundžia, to Beliauskas, to Kirlys" - the double play combination of the current Lithuanian National Baseball Team. Yes, baseball in Lithuania! Indeed, the 80th anniversary of the introduction of baseball in Lithuania was celebrated in Vilnius in 2002. Lithuania is often associated with the sport of basketball, but Lithuanian baseball and basketball share the same roots - Steponas Darius, a Lithuanian who grew up in Chicago, It is just taking baseball longer to become ingrained in the hearts and minds of the Lithuanian populace.
During the post WWI era, Lithuania reemerged as an independent country after over a century of foreign domination by the Russian and Prussian empires. During the years of foreign rule, many Lithuanians immigrated to the United States. Among these immigrants was the young Steponas Darius.
Steponas was born in 1896 under the surname of "Darašius" born in Rubiškė, county of Tauragė in the Klaipėda region of Samogitia. Steponas' father died in 1905, and his mother remarried in 1906. The family journeyed to America in December of 1907 living in Newark, New Jersey and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Finally in 1909, the family moved to the Bridgeport section of Chicago, Illinois. As a teen, Steponas immersed himseif in sports, playing baseball, basketball, football, and ruby.
With the arrival of WWI, Steponas joined the U. S. Army and shortened his surname from Darašius to Darius. Thereafter, Steponas was simply known as Darius. He fought on the battlefields in France, where he was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart. Upon his release from the U.S. Army, Darius returned to Chicago where he studied at the University of Chicago and became involved in Veterans' activities, organizing the Alliance of Lithuanian-American Soldiers.
In 1920, Darius returned to the newly independent Lithuania where he entered the Military School located in the provisional capital of Kaunas. In 1921, he graduated from the School and was commissioned a Lieutenant, thereafter serving in the Lithuanian Air Force.
Darius is perhaps best known for his 1933 fateful crossing of the Atlantic with his fellow Lithuanian-American and war veteran, Stasys Girėnas, in the airplane "Lituanica." The pair began their journey on July 15, 1933, by flying the Lituanica from Floyd Bennett Field in New York. Their goal was to fly directly from New York to Kaunas. On July 17, only three hours from their goal, the Lituanica went down in a German forest near the Polish border. The two aviators did not survive the crash, but they were celebrated as Lithuanian national heroes and honored with a State funeral. Some seventy years later, Darius and Girėnas remain as important fixtures in Lithuanian history, as their images adorn the front of the modern Lithuanian Ten Litas banknote, with an image of the Lituanica found on the reverse side of the banknote.
Darius was truly a "man for all seasons" - an aviator, a member of the American and Lithuanian military, and an athlete. Growing up in America, Darius experienced the pleasure and benefits of playing many sports, including baseball. Sports in America is truly the great equalizer allowing players of every ethnic, social, and economic back-ground to compete on a level playing field where only playing skills are the measure of success. Baseball takes this a step further by requiring a steadfast group effort by individual players to achieve ultimate success. In many ways, the game of baseball embodies the American democratic experience; respect for the rules of the game, pride in individual success, but with ultimate success only being achieved through the unified efforts of the group.
When Darius first returned to Lithuania, he took with him the Americans' love for sports. The result was that Darius introduced many types of athletic competition to the Lithuanian people. This included tennis, soccer, basketball, and baseball. Basketball certainly ignited a passion within the citizenry, which has gained Lithuanian teams and players wide international acclaim.
On the other hand, baseball in Lithuania did not enjoy the same ultimate success. Darius certainly planted the seeds for baseball. He envisioned and drew plans for a major outdoor sports complex in Lithuania, with tennis courts, basketball courts, a soccer field, and a baseball field. In 1922, Darius organized a Lithuanian baseball league. The 1922 champions were the "Lietuvos Fizinio Lavinimosi Sąjunga" team from Kaunas. The first pitch of the 1922 championship series was thrown by United States Ambassador Edwards. A year later, Lithuanian baseball went international when the Kaunas "Aviacijos" team played a team from Estonia and won 11 to 7. Further, in 1924, Darius undertook the time-consuming and painstaking task of translating the complete "Rules of Baseball" from English to Lithuanian.
During this same period in the early part of the 20th century, baseball was becoming an important part of the Lithuanian community in America. The Knights of Lithuania, a Lithuanian-American fraternal organization, through its various chapters established highly regarded recreational baseball teams of Lithuanian-American players. In fact, Darius had sought the assistance of the Knights of Lithuania to aid his quest to bring baseball to Lithuania. Reluctantly, however, Darius recognized that economic conditions were not yet right for the game of baseball to take hold in the land of his birth, and the further development of the game was put on temporary hold. Darius only envisioned a short hiatus for Lithuanian baseball.
Several days before the start of his ill-fated 1933 transatlantic journey, Darius told a newspaper reporter, "... if I succeed in flying to Lithuania and conquer the Atlantic in Lithuania's name, my goal will be to bring Lithuanian-Americans and the youth in Lithuania closer through the sport of baseball." (Nijolė Dariutė-Mastarienė, Darius ir Girėnas, Vilnius, 1991, p. 58). Alas, with the crash of the Lituanica and the resulting death of Darius, Lithuanian baseball was dealt a near fatal blow as it entered a hiatus of several decades, rather than a few years.
In the 1930's, Lithuania along with the rest of Europe went into the economic, political, and social darkness of the pre-WWII and WWII years. Lithuania lost its independence in 1940 when the Soviet Union annexed the Lithuanian Republic. Thereafter, Germany captured Lithuania in 1941, and the Soviets retook Lithuania in 1944.
After the war, Lithuania along with the rest of Soviet bloc entered the cruel Stalinist era and the long Cold War. These long years were times for survival, rather than for games. Further, baseball was the "American" past time, and a sport certainly not in initial favor with the Soviet rulers. In a bit of irony, it was the Soviet Union that reintroduced baseball to Lithuania in the 1980's. During the 1980's with the incorporation of baseball as part of the Olympic games, the Soviet Union embarked upon a campaign to develop Soviet athletics into competitive baseball players. Among this corps of Soviet athletes were a few Lithuanians. Indeed, one of the pitchers of the Soviet National team was a Lithuanian, Edmundas Matusevičius. (Edmundas had been trained as a javelin thrower and was recognized as one of the best javelin throwers in the Soviet Union.)
In 1989, the Soviet National team toured the United States to learn the game of baseball. The tour included a debut game at the United States Naval Academy against the Midshipmen. Navy beat the Soviets 21-1, but the Soviet players had experienced baseball the way it should be played with a pitcher's mound, a manicured grass field with dirt base paths, team benches, and team discipline. Further, during this inaugural game, Matusevičius was brought in to pitch in relief during the first inning after the starting Soviet pitcher had been shelled by Navy's batters.
During this same period, baseball was reestablished within the Lithuanian Soviet Republic. In 1986. Vidas Šapamis, an ice hockey lecturer at the Kaunas Physical Culture Institute conducted the first Baseball Seminar in Lithuania during the Soviet era. Also attracted to the reestablished sport was another Institute instructor, Linas Viltrakis. Vidas and Linas became the coaching staff for all of the Lithuania S.S.R. The pair sought recruits from students of the Institute. One of the recruited students was co-author Arvydas Birbalas.
Arvydas fondly recalled his initial introduction to the game of baseball. "For me the game was 99% new. We had heard little about baseball, and we did not know the Rules of the Game. We had one Ice Hockey goalie glove and one very old, but real, baseball glove that had been donated by a Cuban student. Instead of authentic baseballs, we used field hockey balls."
Arvydas and other Institute students became the core of the "Lithuanian" baseball team, which participated in the first U.S.S.R tournament in April of 1987, held in Kiev. (A few Latvian players were recruited, since there were not enough players to make up a full Lithuanian or Latvian team.)
After the tournament, more Lithuanian players were attracted to the game, and an all-Lithuanian team, "Atletas" was established in Kaunas. This team played in a 1987 summer Leningrad tournament against teams from Latvia, Leningrad, and Cuba (made up of Cubans attending school in the U.S.S.R.). Thereafter, interest in baseball continued to grow with the establishment of another Kaunas team, "Banga", and two teams from Vilnius, "Elektronas" and "Žalgirietis". These teams participated in the first all-Lithuanian tournament, the Vilnius Cup, in August of 1987 with Kaunas' Atletas team winning the tournament.
In September of 1987, the Lithuanian Cup tournament was organized in Kaunas with the Atletas team again taking the honors. In view of the renewed interest in baseball in Lithuania, the Lithuanian Baseball Federation was established in the autumn of 1987 as the governing body for the sport.
The sport continued to expand in Lithuania with the establishment of a team in Utena in 1988. At this juncture, there were over one hundred young men playing baseball on nine different teams throughout the Republic. While perhaps small by American standards, the growth of the game in Lithuania in only two years from using field hockey balls as baseballs and not having enough Lithuanians to even field a national team was significant.
In 1988, a noteworthy event occurred when Lithuanians had their first opportunity to play baseball against Americans. At the time, Kaunas was a closed Soviet city, and westerners were forbidden from even visiting. However, permission was granted for a baseball team of 14 to 15 year olds from Illinois to play in Kaunas. While the Kaunas team was comprised of players no younger than 18 years old, the American team handily defeated the Lithuanians in each game of the three game series. Defeated, yes, but for the Lithuanians it was an important milestone, as they had an opportunity to experience baseball, as it ought to be played and to learn from the experience. Further, it was a reconnection with the spirit of Darius as he had envisioned baseball as the bridge between the American and Lithuanian peoples.
In 1991, Lithuania was the first Soviet Republic to restore its independence. With independence, Lithuanian baseball expanded in new directions, and it has continued to grow. In the early 1990's, teams from Lithuania journeyed to Sweden, France, and the United States to participate in various tournaments. The Kaunas Sports Institute has included in its curriculum a baseball course. Following in the footsteps of Darius, the Institute's Assistant Professor of Baseball, Sigitas Kamandulis, along with Petras Vilčinskas, an Associate Professor of Social Science at the Institute, have translated the official "Baseball Rules" into Lithuanian.
Today, the Lithuanian Baseball Federation is associated with the European Baseball Federation, and the Lithuanian national team is a regular participant in the European Cup. While the initial focus of the sport in Lithuania was to encourage young adults to play, the Federation has actively sought junior high and high school age players to join. For these younger players, the Federation is associated with Little League International. Indeed, in 1999 the Silva Little League team from Kaunas captured the European Region Championship and traveled to Tucson, Arizona to compete in the World Series for 16 to 18 year old player teams. Currently Lithuania has nearly 500 players with 23 active teams located throughout the country in big cities, like Vilnius and Kaunas and in small places like Rukla and Linksmakalnis.
While the slow expansion of baseball throughout Lithuania and the expansion of the game to various age groups are positives, the conditions that the game is played under are less than positive. Games are often played on abandoned soccer fields or on simple grass fields where you will not find a pitching mound or backstop anywhere in sight and where the foul lines are wood chips instead of chalk.
Team uniforms often consist of hand-me-down gifts from America. Baseball gloves, balls, and other equipment are not readily available in Lithuania and, if available, are very costly. Thus, the Lithuanian Baseball Federation must often rely upon the goodwill of American friends to purchase and send these items. In short, for the game of baseball to continue to grow in Lithuania the help of the Lithuanian-American community and other baseball fans is important. Monetary and equipment donations are welcomed. Also, the Federation would like to locate American enthusiasts of Lithuanian baseball and hopefully have them join together to assist in the development of the sport in Lithuania and perhaps to help organize a future American tour for the national team to play college-age teams.
While financial assistance is needed and appreciated, the sharing of baseball to wisdom is also vital to the growth of the sport. In this regard, any visit or contact from a knowledgeable baseball coach (active or retired) would be of great assistance to the Lithuanian coaches.
The co-author, John Chernoski, had an opportunity in September of 2002 to watch a baseball game in Rukla between 13-14 year old teams from Rukla and Kaunas. The playing conditions were indeed primitive by American standards, but the players exhibited enthusiasm for the game and a skill level equal to most American recreation baseball players of that age.
The five Rukla fans included two young teenage girls. He overheard one of the girls say "Amerikietis", and he responded "Taip." John joined the girls, learned that they each had a boy friend on the Rukla team, and had a delightful conversation in English about baseball. As John was leaving, he asked one of the girls if they had ever met an American before. Her response was that he was the first American that they bad ever met!
The words of Darius had proven true as it was through baseball that a Lithuanian-American was making "first" contact and connecting with these young Lithuanians! Hopefully baseball will provide many more opportunities to fulfill Darius' dream.
Nijolė Dariutė-Mastarienė, Darius ir Girėnas, (Vilnius: 1991.)
Andrew Rosenthal, Soviet Team Out of its League in US Debut, New York Times, April 4, 1989, p. Al.
William Walkavich-Valkavičius. Lithuanian Fraternalism: 75 Years of the US. Knights of Lithuania (Brooklyn, NY: 1988). "Steponas Darius"
The coauthors extend their deep appreciation to Antanas Adomėnas and Sigitas Kamandulis for their inspiration and assistance in researching and preparing this article.
(For further information about Lithuanian Baseball or to send a donation or equipment or to offer assistance, please contact the Lithuanian Baseball Federation's website at www.beisbolas.lt
or at the following mailing address: Plechaviciaus 7-10, Kaunas 3043, Lithuania (LT).)
Bridges (2003, Issue 5)
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