An innovative businessman who founded one of the country’s most influential youth sports programs, George Khoury was a living example to sports fans of all ages, demonstrating that good sportsmanship, attention, and a little kindness could improve the lives of young people in astonishing ways.
George M. Khoury was born in the summer of 1900 in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, Salem and Lillie Khoury, emigrated from the Middle East in 1898, six months after the birth of their second daughter, Rose. George was the couple’s first son and their first child born in America. He was followed by six more siblings: Genevieve, Matthew, Margaret, Elizabeth, Frieda, and Ferris. George spent the early years of his childhood in a neighborhood populated by many new immigrant families in St. Louis, where his father ran a grocery store near the present-day site of the Gateway Arch. Like many boys his age, sandlot baseball was one of George’s favorite activities, complete with a homemade ball made of string and tape. But when George was a teenager, Salem Khoury decided to give his large family more room to move and grow. He purchased farm land near Coulterville in northern Randolph County, Illinois. George began attending school in Coulterville and learned a trade, doing apprentice work at a local printing shop.
By the early 1920s, George was anxious to return to the pace of city life. While his parents and siblings stayed in Coulterville, he returned to St. Louis, where he married Dorothy Smith in the fall of 1922. George took on a series of jobs, including running his own print shop; he also managed a movie theater in Clayton and opened a used-car business. He and Dorothy soon had a small family of their own, welcoming three sons: George (born in 1923), Robert (born in 1924), and Alvin (born in 1926). The Great Depression hit the Khoury family hard, and with his businesses in financial ruin, George found it difficult to support his wife and sons. But providence intervened with a job offer from a large printing company in the city, and the Khourys were able to establish a more secure life in a new home. His struggles with poverty during this period would motivate George to focus on trying to improve the lives of others, especially children like his sons.
With their fortunes shifting, the Khourys were able to devote more time to raising their young family. In the mid-1930s, Dorothy Khoury was in search of a meaningful way to keep her sons busy during the summer. She came up with an idea: she and George should start a small baseball league so that the boys could play with other kids from the neighborhood. According to George, she suggested, “You invite the boys’ friends over and I’ll bake a cake and we’ll organize a ball club.” Their team became popular, and they were soon looking to expand. George later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “One day we were driving out Chouteau and saw a lot for sale. ‘Maybe,’ my wife said, ‘we could get hold of a lot like that and organize a baseball league. The boys tell me there are a lot of other kids who want to organize teams.’ I was afraid it would be too expensive — but I’m making a little money now, I said to myself, and what better investment, keeping kids off the street and giving them something to do.”
The lot, it turned out, belonged to someone very interested in baseball: Sam Breadon, who was then the owner and president of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was happy to let the Khourys use the lot to start a league, and with boys clamoring to play, the Khoury League officially opened its first season on Mother’s Day in 1936, as a tribute to Dorothy’s crucial role in starting the league. For years, the league continued to open its season on Mother’s Day in recognition of Dorothy and all of the other mothers who contributed their time and effort to the organization. To help ensure fairness in play, the boys were grouped into age divisions, each with special names, including Atoms, Bantams, and Juveniles.
Teams began playing games on fields and in lots and parks throughout the city and the larger area. The organization was an immediate success, giving local boys a productive way to spend their free time. “Kids of all size and shapes and just about every economic level” showed up in droves. “They had two things in common, a desire to play baseball, and no place to play.” In the midst of the Depression, the league also helped some boys fulfill even more basic needs. George began holding picnics for players during the summers, and he was “surprised how hungry some of those kids were and how they could eat — 13 and 14 sandwiches. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
What began as a convenient way to entertain and occupy the three Khoury boys became a philanthropic philosophy. When asked about the inspiration and motivation behind the creation of the association, George explained, “A boy with a bat in his hand and his eyes on a pitch coming toward him has no time for back alleys, breaking windows, snatching purses or stealing cars. His mind and body are busy with our national game. And more than that, he is growing physically, mentally and morally, nourished by fresh air, exercise and the influences of fair play and good sportsmanship that are inherent in the game of baseball.” George was also adamant that children should not have to demonstrate exceptional athletic talent to play, and they should not have to pay to participate if they were not able to do so. According to George, not a single player was turned away: “If the group can’t pay the small entry fee in the Khoury League, they can come on in anyway.” To this day, the organization’s motto reflects George’s desire to use the league to do good: “The Khoury League Is Interested in the Child That Nobody Else Wants.”
Only a few years after the Khoury League was founded, the nation was plunged into war. All three Khoury sons fought in World War II. George and Alvin joined the army, while Robert served with the navy in the South Pacific. To help keep the Khoury League alive during wartime, George decided to merge the organization with another St. Louis baseball league, the Municipal Baseball Association. The sports pages of St. Louis newspapers continued to be filled with Khoury League box scores during the war, providing both local children and adults with a pleasant distraction from the realities of life on the home front. But after the war, George decided to withdraw from the partnership with the Muny League. Post-war interest in the Khoury League was high enough to keep the organization afloat on its own, and the organization rapidly expanded to include programs in several states.
The youth baseball program even provided a useful outlet for returning veterans who struggled to adjust to civilian life. The Post-Dispatch interviewed the wife of one Khoury League manager who had been tormented by the sounds made by the neighborhood children after his return from the war. She explained, “These youngsters were trying to play in a vacant lot up the street with a battered tin can. When Harry got back from the war he was nervous and unstrung, and I suggested we sponsor those kids in a baseball league. It would be good for them, and it would be good for Harry. And it has been. You never saw such a response as we got from those kids. Well, we’ve watched our little kids grow and advance each year from one division to another, and it’s taken all our time and some money. But you get it back. You more than get it back.”
As the league thrived, it grew to become more and more inclusive. Although Khoury League team membership was originally open only to boys, the organization found new ways to bring in all members of the family and community. In 1953, a Tilden native, Flossie Westfall, found success as the first female manager of a championship boys’ Khoury League team, the Yellow Cabs. Another pennant-winning manager, Edmund Blank, coached his team from a wheelchair while living with muscular dystrophy. Lou Behnen, another female manager, also officiated baseball games in the 1940s as a base umpire. In 1954, a new sport was added to the association, as teams began playing soccer games under the Khoury League banner. (Today, the association’s programs also include several more sports, including basketball and bowling.) And in 1958, girls were finally able to participate in Khoury League ball as well, when the league expanded to include a softball program. Like the boys’ baseball program, the girls’ softball league was divided into age divisions with special names, including Pixies, Petites, and Chics.
The Khoury League got its start in Missouri, but by the spring of 1952, teams began playing in the Illinois county where the Khoury family had purchased land and put down roots. Randolph County’s first Khoury League teams were organized in April in Sparta. James W. Ashley of Sparta was the area’s first Khoury League commissioner, and soon numerous Khoury League teams were playing in the county, including clubs in Chester, Steeleville, Sparta, and Evansville. In August 1957, George was honored during a Khoury League game in his childhood home of Coulterville with a special plaque recognizing his achievements. Several members of George’s family, including his sister Rose and his brother Matthew, were still living in the Coulterville/Tilden area when he was recognized for his work in the county.
The organization continued to grow locally and nationally, eventually extending to include teams in abroad. At home in the St. Louis area, the league was also gaining more exposure through a new medium. Those who couldn’t go to games in person began to enjoy Khoury League baseball when the new KPLR-11 television station began airing games and highlights in the St. Louis market in 1959. The same network aired Cardinals away games, further reinforcing a long-time link between the Cardinals organization and the Khoury League. The Cardinals (and, during their tenure in St. Louis, the Browns) often took part in fundraising efforts to support the Khoury League, and some of the annual youth all-star games for the league were held at Sportsman’s Park and later at Busch Memorial Stadium.
Although George was clear that players didn’t need to possess exceptional baseball talent to play in the Khoury League, the teams also became part of several local athletes’ rise to the top of the sport. C.C. Johnson Spink, publisher of the Sporting News, wrote that the “Khoury program is more than a youth program — it’s a springboard to the major leagues.” Numerous major league players began their careers in the ranks of the Khoury League, including Mike Shannon, Earl Weaver, Dal Maxvill, Frank Baumann, and Homer Bush. Big league players who had started out in the Khoury program often attended fundraisers in support of the league, and many expressed gratitude to the organization for giving them their start in the sport. In 1965, when he received the Khoury Player of the Year Award, Shannon recounted his first experience playing organized baseball as a boy. “[Playing in the Khoury League] was a tremendous thrill,” he said, adding, “I’d like to thank the man who made all this possible — George Khoury.”
In 1959, as the Khoury League began its twenty-third season, George was recognized by one of the most prominent Americans of the time: President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a letter of congratulations to George, Eisenhower wrote, “I understand that nearly a whole generation of boys has grown up in the fine program of your baseball leagues. They have been strengthened in body and spirit and you have the rich satisfaction of knowing that you have contributed much to the fitness of American youth.” With the association celebrating its silver anniversary two years later, accolades poured in. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness honored George in Washington; the same year, he was recognized by the Big Brother organization of St. Louis and was named “man of the year” by ALSAC, a Lebanese-American organization dedicated to raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. At the St. Louis Baseball Writers’ dinner in 1963, George was a winner of the Dr. Robert F. Hyland meritorious service award.
In January of 1960, George took on one of his greatest challenges when he traveled to Israel to help set up Khoury League teams in that country. The Post-Dispatch wrote, “His task was to explain the operation of his successful plan to youth leaders throughout Israel. He was chosen by the United States Committee for Baseball in Israel, which worked with the State Department.” The two-week visit, which was supported in part by St. Louis business leaders like August Busch and Sol Nathanson, included stops in Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Eilat. The trip was not without difficulties. The complicated political environment of Israel provided some obstacles, even for a non-partisan program like the Khoury League. The non-profit aspect of the association also meant that George was faced with “getting enough persons interested in taking charge — without pay.” Even so, George was confident that, given the right support and supplies, the success of the Khoury League in America could be replicated abroad. “There’s no limit to how far a program like ours can expand in Israel,” he explained, “if they can get the balls, bats and other equipment.”
While he was in the Middle East, George was also able to visit his parents’ home country of Lebanon for the first time. The people welcomed him with open arms. According to the Post-Dispatch, “During a visit to the village of a cousin who is a priest, the church bells were rung for Khoury and he was greeted with these words, ‘Welcome great hero of our village.'” George also had an important family appointment to keep: for the first time, he met his eldest sister, who had stayed behind with their grandparents when Salem and Lillie Khoury left for America. The siblings were able to communicate through a translator during their reunion.
George’s health began to decline in the 1960s, although he still found time to advocate for the league that would become his greatest legacy. When George died two days after Christmas in 1967, he was still working toward accomplishing a final part of that legacy: building a dedicated Khoury League stadium. Although a grand stadium project was never fully realized, the international headquarters of the George Khoury Association of Baseball Leagues, located in south St. Louis County, today includes modest baseball diamonds that can be used by teams who need a place to play. The location is perhaps perfectly in keeping with the history of the league, which has always emphasized the people involved with the organization over flashy facilities.
Indeed, those who have chronicled the history of the Khoury League Association have been careful to note that the association has never been a profitable enterprise, making none of its associates rich in financial terms. In fact, the organization has always depended on the generosity of members of the community to help support its teams. But then, as now, it is difficult to quantify the lasting impact of an organization on the thousands of young people who have benefited from its lessons not only in sports but also in teamwork, responsibility, and good citizenship. George Khoury, who rose from modest roots to found an organization that has positively affected the lives of children in Randolph County and across the globe, was always adamant that the children were the focus of his league.
The day after George’s death, Post-Dispatch sports editor Bob Broeg published a heartfelt memorial to the late youth benefactor, reminding his readers that “Khoury encouraged the kid of little talent and never turned down a team that couldn’t meet a modest entry fee.” He wrote, “No one lives forever, not even when he devotes his time to finding ways and means for more girls and boys to play baseball, softball and soccer on an organized basis,” adding that the “monument to the man is in the vibrant, living program he founded and headed” – an organization that continues to thrive and to improve the lives of children today.
George M. Khoury was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2018.