COTTAGE GROVE — Bill Schultz admits he’s addicted to the game of golf.
He’s been playing the sport since he was 8 years old, after his aunt taught him how to swing a club in upstate New York.
Schultz, 74, now lives on Madison’s Far West Side, where his links of choice are Odana Hills and Pleasant View in Middleton.
His first love, however, is baseball. Only he never had a chance to play. Instead, he was relegated to bat boy after the organizers of his local Little League program told him his artificial right leg could hurt someone in the course of a game.
“I was pretty devastated,” Schultz said last week over a cup of coffee. “It had a long-term effect on me.”
Still, Schultz was inspired to go on to manage football, basketball and baseball teams in high school, and football and lacrosse teams while studying at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
And now, more than six decades after being denied a spot on a Little League roster in Schenectady, New York, Schultz is using the skills he learned in a long career as a salesman and corporate recruiter to make sure other children with a disability in southern Wisconsin do more than pick up dropped bats and organize helmets in a dugout.
Schultz has founded the Miracle League of Dane County and is leading a $420,000 fundraising effort to build a Miracle Field at Bakken Park in Cottage Grove. Instead of grass and dirt, the diamond is covered in a rubberized surface colored to mimic the look of a traditional youth baseball field. The bases are flat, along with the entire playing surface, allowing children with disabilities to run, walk or roll a wheelchair unencumbered.
Schultz has raised $180,000, thanks in part to donations from the Rennebohm, Goodman and Culver’s foundations. His hope is to begin construction this year, with opening day in spring 2021.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Schultz said. “The competition between nonprofits in (the Madison area) is unbelievable, so I’m trying to get connected with people who might have a heart for this.”
Under an agreement with the village of Cottage Grove, the Miracle League would lease land at Bakken Park for the Miracle Field for $1 but provide the funding for its construction and operation. Schultz envisions the Miracle League playing three nights a week on the lighted field, which could also be used by the community for activities such as baseball and softball clinics, kickball and T-ball games.
Bakken Park has a rugby pitch that is used on weekends and a playground, and this year it will be getting $1.5 million in improvements: a 2,900-square-foot shelter with restrooms and a 2,500-square-foot splash pad that will open in 2021, according to Sean Brusegar, the village’s director of parks, recreation and forestry.
Brusegar was among a group of park and recreation leaders from Madison, DeForest, Verona and other Dane County communities who met in early 2019 with Schultz to hear his ideas. Brusegar said because the 38-acre Bakken Park was only partially developed and is relatively close to the interstate and Highway 12-18, it quickly became clear to village officials that the Miracle Field would be a good fit.
“After watching a video on other Miracle Leagues and listening to Bill’s enthusiasm for the project, I really wanted to be involved,” Brusegar said. “Both the (Park and Recreation) Committee and the Village Board immediately fell in love with the project and the possibility of providing opportunities to children with disabilities.”
The first Miracle Field opened in Conyers, Georgia, in 2000. Today, there are more than 240 leagues around the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada serving more than 200,000 children, according to the Miracle League website. In Wisconsin, Miracle Leagues can be found in Kenosha, Milwaukee, Manitowoc, Green Bay, Appleton, La Crosse and Eau Claire. Those leagues are not affiliated with Little League Baseball’s Challenger Division, which was founded in 1989 and has grown to more than 950 programs in 10 countries.
West Madison Little League added a Challenger Division to its softball and baseball offerings in 2009, and plays a schedule in September and October as part of its fall season. Last fall, WMLL’s Challenger Division had four teams made of up of 43 players from around the area. Both Challenger and Miracle league games are played with buddies for each player, but WMLL plays on a dirt and grass field. Schultz said he plans to play a summer schedule of games that could attract players from a 60-mile radius and beyond.
“This sounds like a great idea, and WMLL is excited about seeing a new organization in town that will be giving more kids the opportunity to play the game that we love,” said Tom Heneghan, WMLL president. “We welcome the opportunity to work with the Miracle League to provide as much baseball and softball as possible.”
Schultz’s sole focus is to make sure children, regardless of their physical or mental disability, have an opportunity to don a jersey and cap, take a swing in the batter’s box and take in the camaraderie in sports that many take for granted.
When Schultz was born shortly after the conclusion of World War II, his left arm was shorter than his right, and his left hand had only three fingers. His right leg also didn’t develop properly and needed to be amputated shortly after his birth. Schultz has been equipped with a wooden leg for decades but will soon be getting a $15,000 titanium leg. He began writing a book about his life in 2010 and published “Short-Handed: A Young Boy’s Triumph Over Diversity” in 2014. The book chronicles his childhood, the encouragement he received from family and friends to try new things, his love of golf, coaching baseball and basketball in Madison, his faith in Christ and the love of his family, which includes two adult children.
The book also includes articles about Schultz in his hometown newspaper, first as an 8-year-old when he tried out for the Niskayuna Little League in 1954, then when Al DeSantis, sports editor of the Schenectady Union-Star, wrote a column in 1958 about Schultz and his willingness to try baseball, football, bowling, basketball, golf, tennis and swimming.
“Schenectady sports has no greater inspiration than this sunny-dispositioned, befreckled, fast-growing, 5-foot-8 son of a New York Telephone construction supervisor,” wrote DeSantis, who also did a followup article in 1967 after Schultz graduated from Rutgers.
“As a kid, I could keep up with all my friends,” Schultz said last week. “Back then, you organized your own games and you played all day.”
Schultz, who came to Madison in 1987 to work as the vice president of sales and marketing for Weather Central but a year later bought a recruiting franchise, got the idea for the Miracle Field in 2018 after seeing a story about the league on “NBC Nightly News.” Later that year he flew to the Miracle League headquarters in Atlanta to learn about the league, its operations, requirements and philosophy. He learned about the two-inning games in which everyone bats each inning and no score is kept.
“I went down and sat in (an orientation) for a few days, and it validated everything I had seen or heard about,” Schultz said. “I came back pretty much on fire to get this done.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.