The man still known as “Legendary Lloyd’’ back home didn’t need his latest managing gig with the Mariners to cement a baseball legacy.
That happened 42 years ago when Lloyd McClendon led some upstart 11- and 12-year-olds from Gary, Ind., to the brink of a title at the 1971 Little League World Series. McClendon hit five home runs in five at-bats at the Williamsport, Pa., tournament while pitching into extra innings of a championship thriller against a team from defending-champion Taiwan.
Ralph Basemore spent that entire season catching McClendon, right up to the final, where McClendon fanned 12 hitters to extend the longest game in Little League World Series history. And though the Taiwan team eventually got to McClendon in a nine-run ninth inning — regulation Little League games last six innings — Basemore said the meaning of what they experienced hasn’t been lost.
“It’s something you want to hold on to,’’ said Basemore, 55, who lives in the same neighborhood he and McClendon grew up in and works at a local steel mill. “It’s something we can all look back on and be proud of.’’
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McClendon’s hometown — about 25 miles from Chicago — had yet to experience the full brunt of the crime and drug wave that followed the collapse of its steel-centered economy in the late 1970s. Back then, the working-class families let children play outside late and many chose baseball, given the more than half-dozen Little League organizations that existed at the time, compared to just one today.
Still, the Gary squad from 1971 was an anomaly, touted as the first all-black team to ever make it to the World Series.
“It was scary, but exciting,’’ Basemore said. “We just looked around us and took everything in. Most of us had never been outside Gary.’’
McClendon, 5 feet 8 at age 12, towered over teammates and opponents.
“Lloyd was always bigger than everybody else,’’ said Carl Weatherspoon, a reserve outfielder and infielder on the Gary squad. “He was big in stature, too. Everybody liked him and looked up to him.’’
Weatherspoon, 54, a car salesman in nearby Merrillville, Ind., grew up on the long stretch of 13th Avenue in Gary, two blocks from McClendon and his nine siblings. While their fathers worked the steel mills, Weatherspoon, McClendon, the Basemore brothers — Ralph and Vincent — and others headed over to Anderson Field to play ball.
“We all played in the streets until it was dark,’’ Weatherspoon said. “You didn’t have to worry about anything. Things are a lot different now.’’
Weatherspoon remembers McClendon as a “great guy who grew up right. He was just a normal kid, even after everything that happened to him.’’
What happened was the Anderson Little League team went to Williamsport and McClendon hit home runs every time he was pitched to.
“It was like a dream come true,’’ Weatherspoon said. “Back then, it was single-elimination every game and you either won or you went home. We just kept on winning.’’
McClendon hit two home runs in each of respective wins of 7-2 over Lexington, Ky., and 7-0 over Madrid, Spain. He was intentionally walked in three other plate appearances.
At a news conference before the title game, the manager of the Tainan team from Taiwan was asked whether he’d pitch to “Legendary Lloyd” — as McClendon had become known. The manager said he would, to safeguard his team’s “honor’’ when it returned home.
The game was televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, with Jim McKay and Mickey Mantle doing commentary. Players had to run in front of the camera pregame and state their name.
But McClendon was so awed by Mantle that he mumbled his name and tried to sprint off. A laughing Mantle had to call out after him to come back.
In the first inning, Tainan ace Chin-Mu Hsu walked the Basemore brothers, then saw McClendon belt a three-run homer for a 3-0 lead. Hsu intentionally walked McClendon the two other times he came up against him. Basemore remembers it well.
“So much for the whole ‘honor’ thing,’’ he quipped.
Hsu allowed just one more hit and struck out 22 batters. The Tainan squad chipped away at McClendon to tie it 3-3 and send the game to extras.
Things came undone for “Legendary Lloyd’’ in the ninth, when his fastballs either got hammered or bounced away from catcher Basemore. Nine runs scored that frame – seven charged to McClendon – and a 12-3 defeat was sealed.
“Maybe his temper got the best of him and he started to throw too hard, I don’t know,’’ said Basemore, who allowed a tournament-record 10 passed balls in that one game. “No one else would catch him. I was the only one who could. But that game, I just couldn’t.’’
Basemore figured being away from home and dealing with so much for the first time finally caught up to the squad. Hsu had “a high leg kick’’ that he and his teammates had never seen before.
“I think we were intimidated, plain and simple,’’ he said. “I mean, we’d never seen an Asian person before. Just hearing them speak was something strange and a little unnerving for us.’’
McClendon was crying when taken off the mound, but his father was right there and told him he had nothing to be ashamed of. It was a turning point, McClendon has since said, where he realized winning and losing would always take a back seat to playing the game right.
McClendon kept playing it right two years later in launching an all-state career at Roosevelt High School in Gary. His coach, Benny Dorsey, was so impressed he named McClendon team captain his freshman season.
Dorsey had coached McClendon in AAU ball the previous summer, where he’d seen him speak calmly to “one or two headstrong players’’ the coaching staff was having trouble with.
“He had a way of getting his point across better than any of the adults could,’’ Dorsey said.
By then, the aura surrounding “Legendary Lloyd” and his Little League exploits was in full bloom. In a city going through increasingly harsher times, the accomplishments of the 1971 team was a source of civic pride.
“You’d never know it by watching him,’’ Dorsey said. “He was a very humble man. He was very quiet.’’
By high school, other players had caught up to McClendon’s height. But Dorsey said his leadership had all players looking up to the freshman.
“I guess you can say that’s where we knew he could manage in the big leagues,’’ Dorsey said. “He was just somebody who was born to lead others. Even as a kid.’’
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.