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Many people use the term “little league” referring to any youth baseball operation ~ and it’s not always accurate. Little League proper is a global organization governing youth baseball play, under its own set of rules. There are other youth baseball operations, notably PONY Baseball, that are not involved with “Little League.”
To help clarify Little League rules compared with other leagues, let’s examine whether there is a difference between, for instance, PONY Baseball vs. Little League. Yes, there are distinctions. There are a handful of rule and field-size differences that may seem minor, but can indeed change how a little player develops.
- Player divisions by set age ranges (vs. by skills)
- When field sizes increase per older divisions
- Lead-offs and stolen bases by runners are allowed at younger ages in PONY baseball
- Metal spikes allowed earlier in PONY ball
In Little League, a division could have players of 3 (or more) ages; but in PONY, players are assigned to divisions set by age groups.
In PONY Baseball, players are separated into divisions that combine 2 ages, such as 11- and 12-year-olds in the Bronco Division, 13 and 14 in Pony Division, etc. Little League divisions can be similar, except some younger players can “play up” in a division of mostly older kids, if their skill level is deemed acceptable to do so.
Little League players based on previous year’s performance, or from tryouts, can be “pulled up” to older-age divisions. For instance, say at age 9 a player dominated the Minor Division, and by age 10 that player is head and heels above all others in Minors in terms of skill.
So coaches or the league may opt to place that 10-year-old in the Major Division, which is for all kids age 12 and younger. So the division would serve players ages 10, 11, and 12.
Many Little League affiliates (e.g. Hometown Little League, USA) name divisions like the minor leagues of Major League Baseball, e.g. AA League, AAA League, Minors, etc., building up to the Major Division. It’s as if the Majors is the MLB, all the other divisions are farm leagues building up to it.
Players are drafted based on how their ability is judged, and they are assigned to a farm league or the Majors accordingly.
PONY’s divisions are set by age, making it easier for parents to know rules in advance and purchase gear (e.g. metal or rubber spikes on cleats). Sometimes, by special circumstance, PONY players can play up in an older division, specifically for post-season all-stars play.
The size of ballfields in Little League, e.g. distance between bases, and pitcher’s rubber to home plate, remains the same until age 13. At which point, fields move up to high school baseball-sized, with 90-foot bases (except in leagues that use an intermediate division, which had bases at 70 feet).
In PONY ball, the field sizes increase a little each division:
- Age 5-6 = 50’ bases
- 7-8 = 60’ bases, 38’ pitcher’s rubber to home plate
- 9-10 = 65’ bases, 44’ pitcher’s rubber
- 11-12 = 70’ bases, 48’ pitcher’s plate
- 13-14 = 80’ bases, 54’ pitcher’s plate
- 15+ = high school baseball field size
Leading off bases, pick-offs from pitchers, and stolen bases are allowed starting at age 9 in PONY baseball. In Little League it is not allowed until age 13.
PONY Baseball allows metal spikes starting at age 11 (Bronco Div.). Little League forbids metal spikes until age 13.
- Little League forbids head-first slides; PONY does not
- Little League organizations are more likely to have pitch limits for pitchers at the younger ages; PONY might to a lesser extent, often a limit on number of innings pitched per week
Little League Baseball was founded in 1939 to organize baseball play for kids up to age 12. PONY Baseball was launched in 1951, as Protect Our Nation’s Youth (PONY), to serve players aged 13 and older. Basically, PONY was born to meet a need that Little League (at the time) did not meet: letting teens and, later, young adults play ball.
PONY Baseball grew relatively quickly, and within years both organizations opened divisions overlapping the other ~ Little League added its Senior Minor and Senior divisions for players ages 13-16; while PONY added Bronco (ages 11-12), Mustang (9-10), and divisions for ages 7-8, and down to 5-6.
Most people familiar with Little League know about its Little League World Series, which is a global tournament for all-star teams of players up to age 12. The finals are at the complex in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, where the organization began.
PONY Baseball, too, started in Pennsylvania ~ though in a town called Washington.
It should be noted that certain affiliates of either Little League or PONY Baseball might have rules that differ from other affiliates of the same organization. Let’s say some East Coast Little League affiliates call their lower divisions AA, AAA, etc., while on the West Coast it’s straight Farm division, Minors, Majors.
There are other examples of some differences, such as at which age runners can advance on passed balls. Additionally, parents of any league can make a special request, like PONY parents wanting their younger player to play in an older-age-bracketed division.
These requests are handled on a case-by-cases basis, starting with the local league’s board of directors. Should they not feel comfortable making the decision, it could be bumped up to a statewide, or even regional or statewide, office.
Anyone can ask for special circumstances; not all requests get approved.
Both organizations operate as nonprofits with executives leading the national organization, plus a supportive staff, and bylaws and rules that all affiliates must follow.
In reality, cities, communities, or neighborhoods do not choose which youth baseball organization to have for their local children. It depends on the person or persons involved with founding a league, and ultimately who they choose to align with.
For instance, any adult can start a youth baseball league. It does not have to be Little League, PONY baseball, Cal Ripken Baseball, or any other national or global institution.
It could be called Joe’s Kids Baseball League of Springfield, Missouri. Joe could write his own rules for divisions and game play, secure fields, manage funding, etc., and stage full leagues. He just would not get help from a bigger organization, with all its own rules to abide by, unless Joe chooses to become affiliated with it.
That’s a common way a town might only have Little League, or PONY Baseball, and not the other. It just so happens that the founders contacted an organization and applied for affiliation.
In these cases, much depends on the experience of the applying party, and perhaps regional influences. The founder of a private league could have grown up playing Little League, and that’s all he knows so he goes that route.
Other times, a single youth baseball operation might dominate a region, and the founder goes with that so his teams can compete on an even plane, and also join in competitive postseason all-star play.
New or private leagues cannot become affiliated with more than 1 national or global youth baseball organization. The reason is outlined above: they have different rules and requirements, which would conflict.
It is worth noting that becoming affiliated means the league must abide by the rules and regulations of that organization. Ignoring such rules can result in having the affiliation canceled, or other penalties.
For instance, let’s say the Cook County Little League board of directors votes to allow metal cleats starting at age 7. If the Little League organization becomes aware that an affiliate is purposely breaking its rules, it could send a warning to the offending league, and possibly force un-affiliation.
Understand that there are many other youth baseball organizations out there, including Cal Ripken Baseball, Babe Ruth League baseball, American Legion, USSSA, and more. None has anywhere near a monopoly.
This happens all the time, when a city or town has a population large enough to support more than one affiliated league.
Take for example the case of Simi Valley, Calif., a suburban city of about 126,000 people just northwest of Los Angeles. That community has a couple of PONY Baseball leagues (roughly covering the east and west sides of town, though there are no rules limiting players from joining either); the Susana Knolls Little League; and a big Cal Ripken Baseball-affiliated organization.
Such overlap generally covers a great geographic area, so kids (and parents) can more easily get to fields. In the example above, aside from the PONY leagues in either end of town, the Knolls Little League is in the far southeast corner of the valley; while the Cal Ripken League is south-central. Even with 5 youth baseball leagues in town, all of them thrive.
Not all youth baseball leagues have to be private or nationally affiliated. Government agencies also could manage youth leagues, such as through a city’s parks and recreation department, or through a special district like a park district.
Private organizations like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club also could arrange their own leagues. Not all youth baseball leagues have to have teams and divisions. Some could just be managing players to stage games periodically.
There are many instances where a private organization like a local Boys & Girls Club could arrange “clinics” or special events, to have adults with baseball knowledge help youngsters new to the game learn the rules and maybe develop some early skills.
In the United States, parents can choose from any number of organized leagues in which to enroll their child to play baseball. Little League is the oldest and most known, but others like PONY Baseball launched not long after Little League did in 1939.
Differences between the leagues can seem trivial, but they exist. What they all have in common is a groundwork of rules allowing kids to play the game of baseball. That’s the simple part.
The leagues can vary in their rules, how they separate players into divisions, assign field sizes per age group, what gear is allowed or disallowed, etc.
It is impossible to say which youth baseball league is the best. That’s really up to the eye of the beholder ~ based on what parents or players want most out of their league.
It could be the best playing fields, or the best complex, or the closest fields to home, or rules like allowing metal cleats at age 11. Any number of reasons can influence these decisions ~ including which league’s all star teams seem to win a lot each summer.
The bottom line is, leagues affiliated with these national or even global organizations have established solid frameworks in which to participate in baseball. That longevity means consistency in play, and using their experience to adjust rules in attempts to make their baseball play even better.
Question: Which organization is better?
Answer: There is no single true answer. The best answer is, it depends. Want to have a chance to see your child on television if his or her all star team plays through the entire summer? Then go with Little League. Want your player best prepared for travel and upper-level ball, with lead-offs and stealing bases, etc. PONY Ball starts all that earlier than Little League.
Q.: Why doesn’t PONY Baseball have a World Series, too?
A.: Yes, for various age/division levels. It’s just that Little League has a sizable contract with a television network for its World Series to be broadcast. Some PONY all star tournaments or games might get some regional TV exposure. But Little League carries the prestige of the known World Series for young baseball players. The Little League World Series is a global tournament involving leagues from many different countries.