Max Bobholz was sitting at home in Green Bay, Wisconsin watching the 2012 edition of the Little League World Series when he was struck by one team in particular.
“I was driving home from work and Max called me and said mom you would not believe what’s happening,” said Max’s mother Julie.
“Uganda is the first African country representing in the Little League World Series and they have one ball, and they have one bat, and they don’t have shoes,” she said, recounting her son’s call . “We have to give them our baseball equipment.”
A selfless thought by the baseball-crazed 12-year-old boy, sure, but his mother didn’t think much of it after a discussion that night at the dinner table.
But Bobholz, now 18, refused to forget about it.
“I never let it go,” he said. “I don’t know why exactly it stuck with me so much, but something about it just did.”
Once the idea took hold, Bobholz took it and ran with it.
Bobholz named his charity Angels at Bat, in honor of a youth coach of his who passed away when he was 9 years old.
The premise was simple.
In basements, attics and garages across the country, old baseball equipment sat unused and forgotten, collecting dust.
Bobholz had a thought - what if there were a way to donate that equipment to countries in Africa that didn’t have access to it as easily.
The hard part was getting it there.
Bobholz and his family started having conversations with local Rotary Clubs in Wisconsin and eventually one conversation proved fruitful.
“We got in contact with the Rotary Club of Stevens Point, and they said they were going to Kenya in the summer,” Bobholz said. “So then we thought, OK, could we send some equipment with you guys?”
Asking to send equipment eventually turned into tagging along.
“Me and my mom went to Kenya in 2014 and we brought 19 suitcases worth of baseball equipment,” Bobholz laughs. “That was a stressful experience.”
Baseball in Kenya
Baseball has been taking hold in Kenya.
According to George Mahinda, President of Kenya Little League, the sport was first introduced by Peace Corps workers and volunteers from baseball-crazed Japan.
Kenya Little League got its start in 1997 but quickly fizzled out due to lack of support. It was reborn in 2010, and thanks to donations, it has been growing steadily since.
“We have expanded to over 200 schools and 10 universities as our initial players have now entered the Universities” Mahinda said. “We have two universities (which) include it in their physical education curriculum as well.”
Angels at Bat isn’t doing it alone. As helpful as equipment has been, coaches and umpires are also needed to help teach the sport.
“Growth was limited until 2012 when we teamed up with American Friends of Kenya who not only brought us equipment but came with three baseball coaches and umpire,” Mahinda said.
Justus Mwaka, a Kenyan driver who now works as equipment distributor for Angels at Bat, said baseball is quickly gaining love from the locals.
“When I saw baseball for the first time it was crazy to me. I could not understand it.”
But Mwaka is optimistic about its future in the country. “I think it’s working out really well. People are getting to love baseball in a very quick manner here.”
Bobholz gets emotional thinking about how his charity has helped a country embrace a sport.
“You fall in love with the people, you fall in love with the country, you fall in love with the idea of teaching baseball to a group of children that have never heard of it. It’s something that’s hard to explain until you experience it, and it’s unreal.”
Mahinda sees an even brighter future for the sport. He hopes to see Kenya participate in next year’s Little League World Series, and hopefully qualify for a spot in the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo.
A chance to give back
The Bobholz family owns a storage unit overflowing with baseball equipment. Gloves, bats and balls litter the floor while bins full of old uniforms and trophies are stacked against the walls. While some items may look like they’ve seen better days, they all serve a much larger purpose.
Julie Bobholz remembers the first stop in Kenya with some of that equipment, an orphanage.
“That first moment at that orphanage when he was pulling equipment out of the bag and teaching them how to hold the glove and started playing with them,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes. “That’s a pretty special experience to watch your child’s dream come true, actually come true in front of your eyes.”
In a trip to Kenya in July, the Bobholz family brought almost 500 pieces of equipment with them and got to watch a game, something that would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago.
“The growth and excitement for baseball is an incredible joy to see,” she said. “It is truly growing and becoming a passion for many children.”
For Max Bobholz, what started as a child’s wish has now spawned branches in Colorado, Alaska, Missouri and more to come. The charity even started branching out to donate equipment to Uganda and Nigeria. But for him, it all comes back to Kenya.
“If I saw Kenya playing in the Little League World Series I would not be able to describe my thoughts, my feelings, because I would probably know some of those kids. Maybe I supplied them with equipment,” he said.
The young man pauses to think about that moment.
“I cannot describe how amazing it would feel.”