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The future of American Legion baseball

2017 October 2
by Phil Miller

My oldest son played American Legion baseball this summer.  It was our first experience with it and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of play overall.  From my limited and certainly non-random observations, American Legion baseball quality seems to exceed that of the varsity games I have observed.

The most impressive team I watched was the team from Creighton Prep from Nebraska, the runner-up in this year’s American Legion World Series.  Unfortunately, for my son’s team, Creighton Prep was the first opponent in this summer’s Gopher Classic.

Pretty much every school baseball squad I’ve seen takes “ins and outs” before each game.  Typically, a coach hits ground balls to infielders who then throw to one of the bases (ins) while another coach hits fly balls to the outfielders who then throw the ball to a base or a cutoff man (outs).

Creighton Prep’s ins and outs were the most impressive I’ve seen.  From what I recall, one coach hit balls to the right side of the infield from the third base line while another coach hit balls to the left side of the infield from the first base line.  Yet another coach stood near home plate and hit to the outfielders.  Balls were criss crossing all over the place and the players fielded seemingly each ball flawlessly.

According to the Washington Post, American Legion baseball might be going the way of other sports.

For years, there has been just one option for high school baseball players looking to play in a decent summer league. They suited up for their local American Legion post, which played 40-some games in two months under the June and July sun.

Posts divvy up the local high schools to draw the best players and even accept returning college freshmen younger than 19. They pitch high schoolers on high-quality, team-oriented local baseball.

But “travel” or “showcase” baseball teams have steadily chewed away at the grasp the American Legion, the nation’s oldest veterans’ organization, held on summer ball. The Legion has lost 25 percent of its teams nationwide over the last 10 seasons, with some states losing close to 80 percent.

This year (2017), Minnesota boasted the most American Legion teams (357), Nebraska the second-most (295), and Pennsylvania the third-most (282).  California, on the other hand, has fewer American Legion teams (51) than North Dakota (67), Montana (65), and South Dakota (82). Texas (10), Florida (22), and Georgia (8) have fewer teams than Wyoming (38).

The article has a map of the US with each state colored with respect to the percent change in Legion baseball teams since 2008.  There is a block of states in the north which experienced no decline or growth: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota.  New Mexico also experienced no decline or growth.  The northeast also had a handful of states with no decline or growth (New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maryland, and West Virginia).  Washington DC also shares this quality.

But in California, Texas, and Florida, populous states where year-round baseball can be played in many locales, there has been more than a 70% decline.

States like Florida, California, New Jersey and Oklahoma have lost nearly 80 percent of their teams since 2008, according to participation data.

New Jersey had 336 teams in 2008. This season, it had 51. Puerto Rico’s program shut down completely in 2012.

The article notes what is probably the most important reason: Legion ball, in general, wasn’t providing a service many players (and their parents) wanted.

Those “travel” or “showcase” teams, though, offer more face time before college and pro scouts, better competition and a more individual-focused game, where players can spend more time working on personal skills than sacrifice bunting, organizers say.

The competition faced by American Legion baseball will force it to respond.

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