Extra innings

By Kollen Long | May 1, 2020

It’s obvious where Bob Lutz stands on the pressing issue of American cheese on crackers. Clearly against it, as evidenced by a debate on his daily radio show with his son and co-host, Jeff.

Lutz’s opinion on soccer has been made clear. All good if you are watching your kids play the sport, but a hard pass otherwise.

On the St. Louis Cardinals? Total allegiance.

During a 45-year journalism career, including 20 as a sports columnist for the Wichita Eagle and more than a decade on the radio, Lutz has proven adept at giving his opinion clearly and forcefully on a variety of topics.

Surprisingly, he shows some uncertainty about one topic he cares about deeply: League 42, a nonprofit youth baseball organization he created after retiring from the Eagle in 2016.

“I think about this all the time. Why am I, a 64-year-old man, pouring myself into this?” said Lutz, decked out in a League 42 sweatshirt and baseball cap. “When you think retirement, you think about going on a trip, maybe sitting in your lounge chair, going to the fishing hole. And that’s what I thought retirement would be for me.”

During baseball season, Lutz spends nearly every night at the League 42 fields at McAdams Park in north Wichita. Or at least he did, before the coronavirus pandemic forced him to cancel this spring and summer’s season. Lutz was also forced to scrap a planned fundraiser for the league featuring such Wichita-bred sports legends as Lynette Woodward, Jim Ryun and former running back Barry Sanders.

Lutz, who was devastated by the necessity to cancel, says he plans to bring back both the League and the fundraiser next year and that some baseball could be played this fall.

Lutz “is very hands-on” when it comes to the League, said Todd Johnson, who has been involved since its inception and has held several key roles. “It’s safe to say that without Bob, there’s no League 42. He’s accomplished a lot, and he’s doing it for the right reasons.”

Lutz hosts a show called “The Drive” from 4-6 p.m. weekdays on KFH 97.5 FM. The idea for League 42 was born on air when Lutz mentioned a concern for baseball’s absence from Wichita’s urban area. The inaugural season attracted 210 players, boys and girls.

Lutz, who emphasizes that he has had plenty of help building the league, tugs on his cap and smiles at the memory.

“We had to hand out gloves to 90 percent of the kids. Many put the gloves on the wrong hand, didn’t know how to run to first base. But they were interested and excited, and we thought, ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got something here.’”

Indeed, they did. For the season he had to cancel, 600 kids were registered for a total of 43 teams.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself through League 42, and it comes down to the fact that I genuinely love the kids we serve,” Lutz said. “I want them to have the very best we can possibly provide for them. I don’t want to let them down. So for as long as I’m capable, I want to do everything I can to make League 42 successful. 

“We want to be here for decades. As long as I’m here, I want to keep pushing myself to improve our facility and keep the kids excited about baseball.”

Lutz has announced two future projects: a building for offices and an academic center, and a Jackie Robinson pavilion.

“It’s important to help these kids understand that getting an education is a valuable thing,” Lutz said. “You don’t have to set your sights on a college degree or a master’s degree, although that’s OK if you do. But if you can get through high school, with that diploma in hand, you have a great chance to be successful.”

The pavilion for Jackie Robinson, whose uniform number inspired the league name, will be located between the fields and include a life-size statue of the baseball legend. “We think it’s going to be a tourist destination right here in Wichita, Kansas,” Lutz said.

Lutz said the project will require raising a “substantial sum of money.”

Lutz’s son, Jeff, said that he sees a shift in what could be his dad’s legacy – from being remembered for League 42 instead of as a long-time newspaperman.

“When you write a story, you take nothing and turn it into something,” Jeff Lutz said. “That’s what he’s done with League 42. There was nothing on that side of McAdams Park, and now there are baseball fields, kids playing every night of the week, parents in the bleachers. I definitely think he wants to be remembered for this.”

Bob Lutz says with pride that 31 graduates of League 42 played high school baseball last season.

“This is a passion of mine,” Lutz said. “It’s always bothered me that baseball isn’t an option for so many of these kids. They love football, they love baseball, they love soccer.

“Now a lot of them are starting to love the game of baseball too.”

Kollen Long can be reached at longkollen@gmail.com.