Time Out: July 3, 2012

By John Bernhardt
Has baseball’s moment passed? Matthew Futterman pondered that question as it relates to baseball’s health in America in an article he wrote for The Wall Street Journal last spring. In Delaware County the answer to Futterman’s question seems clear: baseball’s glory days are over and the sport is in a spiraling and perhaps fatal decline.

A simple, unscientific test might help validate that claim. Ask a sampling of adolescent children who have an interest in sports who their favorite professional athlete is. I’d wager very few will answer with the name of a professional baseball player. Baseball has lost touch with the eight- to 14-year-old demographic.

Of course, Futterman used samples of real data. The National Sporting Goods Association, an industry trade group, collected the information and released a report last year that Futterman used to back his assertions. Their report mined data collected between 2000 and 2009, the last year information was available, to paint a gloomy baseball portrait.

Trouble on the diamond
Here’s some of baseball’s bad news: Over the time span of the study the number of kids aged seven to 17 playing baseball fell by 24 percent. Participation in baseball, for decades the unchallenged leader amongst young people playing sports, now lags behind soccer, basketball, softball, football and volleyball. And, the number of youngsters playing Little League baseball, which account for two-thirds of all kids who play the sport, is steadily dropping and show signs of even more rapid loss.

Little League used to be a rite of passage for most American boys. In the United States, 300 of the 6,400 Little Leagues have folded in the last seven years. Participation has dropped two percent each year for six consecutive years. “Little League has never seen a downturn in participation that has lasted this long,” lamented Little League spokesperson Lance Van Aucken.

Numerous reasons for decline
There are many reasons baseball is struggling to hold the passion of young people. Extreme sports, barely an afterthought a generation ago, are battling to claim the loyalties of the sporting young.

Lured by the speed and individual glory that comes in skateboarding, in-line skating, stunt bicycling, or other dare-devil like sporting adventures more and more young athletes are turning to extreme sports. “It’s hard to make baseball look glamorous, especially next to a guy going 60-feet up in the air on a dirt bike or to skateboarder Tony Hawk flying 10-feet in the air off a vertical ramp,” explained Shawn Harper, a dad fighting to help his nine-year-old son learn to love baseball.

Other team sports offer more action and faster play than baseball. Soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse are action packed with constant movement. Players act responsively, at the spur of the moment, rather than engaging in the slower paced thinking forward required of baseball.

“Parents want to see their kids moving,” explained John Mitchell, a former college baseball coach from Alabama. “They drop their kids off at soccer practice and they know they’re gonna’ run around like maniacs for an hour. When they watch baseball practice, they often see them standing around in the outfield while the coach throws batting practice.”

Technology, too, plays a part in baseball’s demise. More and more kids these days are riveted to their chairs playing computer games. A lack of activity has raised alarms that the inactivity of our youth is a root cause of record percentages of childhood obesity and related health issues. It seems like wherever you go most of the kids you see are playing with a handheld gadget of some kind.

Sadly, major league baseball plays a part in the waning interest of America’s young in baseball. Astronomically priced new stadiums, even at the minor league level, have become a requirement of a city sponsored professional baseball team. Coupled with the astronomical salaries of major league baseball players the ‘big money’ intrusion in the game sets off a domino chain that almost guarantees less baseball interest. To pay for the largesse, professional franchises charge outrageous prices for tickets to a game, in effect making it nearly impossible for the less affluent to attend a game. That loss of contact contributes to fewer youngsters wishing to play the game.

Even though major league baseball saw record attendance numbers last season, officials are aware of the growing divide and the potential consequences. Tim Bronson, and executive vice-president of MLB explains, “We know if you play as a kid you over-index in your propensity to become a fan. That’s our core right there, so any decline is going to get our absolute and full attention.”

Locally, youth baseball, and baseball in general might be on life support. Dale Cole of Andes had his hand in the baseball movement in Delaware County when baseball was king. Cole began playing baseball on an Andes Cub Scout baseball team. He played Little League, American Legion, town team baseball, and men’s league softball.

And Cole coached or helped organize teams at nearly all those levels. For 18 summers Cole coached American Legion teams, 11 Junior Legion squads from Andes, three from Stamford, one from Delhi, and three Delhi Senior Legion teams. Five of those teams won countywide championships.

“Baseball was once the thing in Delaware County,” Cole remembered. “In Andes hundreds of spectators would sit on the hill watching the town team play. Crowds lined up and stood three or four deep along the baselines on both sides of the field.” Cole recalled fierce town team rivalries with Margaretville, Roxbury and Delhi. Almost every village fielded a team with town teams once in Hamden, Grand Gorge and Fleischmanns.

In fact, Cole recounted that most Delaware County communities used clever recruiting ploys to find talented players to play on their teams. One such Andes player was the legendary major league slugger Hank Greenburg. “There was a Jewish camp on Tunis Lake and Hank used to work there as a counselor when he was a teenager,” said Cole. “Hank loved baseball, and during the summer he played on the Andes team.”

According to Cole several players on the Saint John’s baseball team worked at the camp over the years. They, too, played on the Andes team. And, some local Andes businesses, most notably, the creamery, made a point of hiring help who just happened to be pitchers on the Oneonta college teams.

Baseball flourished all over Delaware County. Legion baseball gained a foothold sometime in the mid to late 1950s. Men like Rex Warring, Herb VanValkenburgh and Willis Mark were instrumental in bringing Legion baseball to the region. Marks served as the first Delaware County Coordinator handing the reins to Tom Coddington sometime in the 1970’s. Coddington reports that in its hay day, 19 Legion baseball teams in two leagues, Junior and Senior, played in a single season. Communities like Grand Gorge, Franklin, Andes, Bloomville and Hamden all fielded teams in the Junior division.

At its zenith in Delaware County, teams many times had full rosters with more players than American Legion rules allowed. “During the 70s baseball was hot,” Cole recalled. “You could only keep 17 guys on a Junior Legion roster. One particular year I had 24 kids at Andes. I never cut anybody but could only play 17 on the roster.”

Fast forward to 2012. Delaware County’s American Legion baseball involvement now involves only six teams in the two divisions. Several of those teams are combined teams involving two or more communities. Only Hancock seems on a solid footing with separate teams in both the Junior and Senior leagues. There are no American Legion baseballs flying on school fields in Andes, Margaretville, or Roxbury this summer.

Many of the causes for baseball’s decline locally mirror those that have slowed interest in the sport across the country. Certainly demographics have something to do with the Delaware County falloff. There are simply fewer age eligible kids living in Delaware County than there was when baseball participation reached its peak in the ’70s.

A more mobile society has also contributed to the decline. In the 1960s and ’70s, many families owned one car, rarely traveled great distances, and were involved in most local events. With cheaper air travel, mobile campers, and an explosion of multiple car families came increased travel, including vacation travel that often took place in the summer. That, too, put a pinch on Legion baseball numbers. “I rarely had a player who wasn’t able to commit to an entire summer season,”
said Cole.

Sport specialization has played a part in dwindling local interest in baseball. Specialized travel teams in almost every sport have blurred the boundaries that at one time governed sport participation. Soccer, once a fall activity, invaded the spring, forcing some youngsters to choose between the two, and placing time constraint burdens on kids electing to play both sports. Kids have multiple options and are simply spread too thin.

And, the local high school teams are feeling the pinch. Andes no longer fields a team. The Margaretville varsity roster only had 10 players this spring, one more than the Blue Devils modified team. Several schools fielded teams dominated by underclassmen.

For old timers across the county, the erosion of youth baseball is hard to stomach. It’s like a little piece of our local culture, our local heritage dies each time another community fails to field a baseball team. Most feel like columnist George F. Will, a fierce baseball enthusiast, who once said, “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And, the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”