American Legion’s membership decline contributes to shrinking baseball league
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.
The Legion once boasted era-defining baseball players as alumni: Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, Ted Williams, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson. Legionnaires still revere an era of pure, hometown baseball.
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.
Teams are often run by high school coaches as a de facto offseason training program or by for-profit baseball trainers. They play weekend tournaments instead of regular schedule. Roster spots on some teams can cost thousands of dollars.
States like Florida, California, New Jersey and Oklahoma have lost nearly 80 percent of their teams since 2008, according to par- ticipation data.
New Jersey had 336 teams in 2008. This season, it had 51. Puerto Rico's program shut down completely in 2012.
Legion officials at both the national and state levels are struggling to diagnose the problems causing America's oldest veterans' organization to shed ballclubs. Many blame the showcase teams, long derided as "selfish" by Legionnaires for their style of play.
It coincides with deep cuts to the Legion's national membership. The American Legion lost nearly 1,000 posts nationally between 2000 and 2014. Membership dipped 11 percent to 2.4 million members.
And the American military veteran population continues to age and shrink. There were 22.7 million veterans worldwide in 2013. The Department of Veterans Affairs predicts there will be 14 million veterans by 2020.