Amer­i­can Le­gion’s mem­ber­ship de­cline con­trib­utes to shrink­ing base­ball league

Woonsocket Call - - Seniors - By JA­COB BOGAGE

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.

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