American Legion baseball, a summer tradition, is slowly fading away
By FRANK FITZPATRICK | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: July 27, 2019
PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Three weeks after 120,757 fans, the largest paid crowd in Philadelphia sports history, packed Sesquicentennial Stadium for the Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey heavyweight title fight, a baseball game there between American Legion teams from New York and Idaho drew 119,757 fewer spectators.
That Oct. 14, 1926 championship of the first American Legion World Series might not have excited Philadelphians, but it did signal the dawn of a new national ritual, one that in the future would enrich American summers, embody the values of small towns and big-city neighborhoods everywhere, and nurture 81 future baseball Hall of Famers.
Established in 1925 to teach youngsters “citizenship through sportsmanship,” Legion baseball quickly evolved into what the organization’s website called “a national institution.”
By the late 1940s, posts teeming with World War II veterans were sponsoring an estimated 7,000 teams. And the baseball was first-rate, providing fans and scouts an opportunity to watch a community’s best players, some destined for college or professional ball.
From Bob Feller and Frank Robinson to Mike Piazza and Roy Halladay, generations of American stars honed their skills while wearing American Legion patches on their uniforms.
“Legion used to be the best league with the best players,” said Howie Freiling, a Phillies scout who played Legion ball in Northeast Philadelphia in the 1980s. “That’s why it was so popular. All the top high school players wanted to play Legion ball.”
But in the last decade or so, this summertime tradition has experienced the summertime blues. Changing demographics in the military population, shifting cultural attitudes, the travel-ball phenomenon, the relentless pursuit of athletic scholarships, and a paucity of willing adult volunteers have combined to greatly diminish the quantity and quality of American Legion baseball.
Nationally in the last decade, the organization has lost 25 percent of its teams. There are only half as many (3,786) today as there were in 1940.
The trend is especially pronounced in places rich with prospects — Florida, California, and Texas — as well as in populated urban states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where youngsters have more athletic options and where parents are better able to meet the high cost of travel baseball.
As recently as 1996, Pennsylvania was home to more than 500 Legion teams. Today, there are 252. It’s worse in New Jersey, which now has just 38 teams, an 80 percent decline in the last decade alone.
This summer and last, Philadelphia, once home to a circuit of 12 competitive neighborhood teams, hasn’t had an American Legion league. The two city nines that still exist, Mount Airy and Roxborough, have been forced into suburban leagues. Two other city teams couldn’t find adults to coach them.
“For years, the Philly league was one of the best in the state,” said John McArdle, a Melrose resident who’s the Legion’s Region 3 assistant director. “South Philly was always very strong. There were teams in Juniata, Bridesburg, North Philly, Southwest Philly.”
It’s a familiar story. As with basketball, the best baseball players are being identified early, then herded into AAU programs, travel-ball teams, and the sport’s expanding Showcase system.
In AAU and travel ball, qualifying youngsters pay substantial amounts of money to compete on teams that play in regional and national tournaments.
“Parents have to pay anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 for their kid to go to these tournaments,” said Jack Purdy, a longtime Philadelphia-area Legion coach and now Region 3’s director.
“Legion doesn’t cost you anything. It baffles me why these people want to pay all that money for something that’s not realistic. They’re sold a bill of goods, told that their kids are going to play Division I baseball. I know a lot of these kids, and they’re not Division I players.”
For Showcase ball, the focus is even more intense. Players often eschew competitive baseball to gear up for four or five annual events in which they get to display their skills before assembled scouts and college coaches.
“Showcase is pay-for-play,” Freiling said. “People put together All-Star teams. Then someone puts together a big tournament, tells all the scouts, and charges all the teams to come.”
At the largest of these fishbowl events, the Perfect Game Showcase, thousands of players on scores of teams travel to Florida annually to perform. And apparently it works. According to Perfect Game, since its Showcase’s 2001 inception, 352 participants have gone on to play in the major leagues.
According to Purdy, the emphasis these youngsters place on personal skills often makes it difficult for them to adapt to the Legion’s team-oriented concept.
“I got to the point where I didn’t want AAU kids on my Legion team,” he said. “They didn’t care about the team. They didn’t care about winning. All they cared about is what they did. It got to be a hindrance for the other kids.”
The effect of all this is not only fewer Legion teams but also fewer kids and lesser talent for the clubs that remain in the 95-year-old program. It’s a far cry from the way things worked for more than 75 years.
After World War I, Legion posts, concerned about the military preparedness of America’s youth, started sponsoring summer teams, filling them with the best high school players from within their geographic boundaries.
The Loudenslager Post in Northeast Philadelphia, for example, was a local powerhouse. It attracted talent from the many private, public, and parochial schools in its area.
Freiling, who would be drafted by the Dodgers and play minor-league ball with Los Angeles and the Mets, played four years with Loudenslager on teams coached by former Phils catcher Benny Kulp. His early 1980s teammates included Jesse Levis, a Phillies draft choice who spent nine seasons with the Indians and Brewers; future Phils outfielder and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., and several who played at Temple and other colleges.
“We had all the best players,” Freiling said. “I went to Northeast. We had guys from Catholic schools like [Cardinal] Dougherty and [Father] Judge. And Ruben came from Penn Charter. We all just wanted to play Legion ball.”
Their games drew large crowds to Fox Chase Playground. Afterward, Legion members often invited the players to their Oxford Avenue post for pizza and soda.
“The old-time veterans were great to us,” Freiling said. “Every winter, they’d have banquets to raise funds for the team.”
Local teams traditionally have done well in the Legion’s state, regional, and national competitions. Five in the last 32 years have won Legion World Series: Boyertown (1987), Yardley (1996), Brooklawn (2013-14), and Wilmington (2018).
At one time in Pennsylvania, the Legion sponsored a progressive All-Star tournament — initiated by Phillies scout Jocko Collins — that in its own way served the same function as today’s showcases.
“The best of the Philly All-Star Legion would get selected for a regional All-Star team and so on until they reached an East vs. West game in Harrisburg,” Freiling said. “At that last game, you’d have the best 50 players in the state, and there’d probably be 100 scouts and college coaches watching.”
But after a while, as Legion talent drifted away, scouts found the showcases a more worthwhile option.
“We couldn’t get them to come to the All-Star Games anymore, and the program went down the drain,” Purdy said. “It’s too bad because that was a Legion strong point.”
An American Legion official contended that while there’s been a big drop-off in certain areas of the country, Legion ball is growing elsewhere.
“The American Legion isn’t in the business of producing baseball players,” said Steve Cloud, the organization’s Indianapolis-based assistant director of baseball. “It’s about using baseball as a vehicle to promote citizenship, teamwork, Americanism, sportsmanship, and loyalty.
“Sixty-seventy percent of our losses are from three or four states,” Cloud said. “Florida is the mecca for travel, showcase, and other kinds of for-profit baseball. It and places like Pennsylvania and New Jersey are declining. But overall, I think, we’re turning it around. You go to Minnesota and other rural communities and we’re growing. Our junior programs are growing, too.”
Purdy acknowledged the Philadelphia area’s junior leagues (primarily 13- to 15-year-olds) were also experiencing growth. The problem lies with the 18- and 19-year-olds.
“Kids’ attitudes today are different,” Purdy said. “Plus, they’re thinking about girls, cars, senior week, colleges. We lose a lot of them.”
There are other factors at work. In Philadelphia and other large cities, MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program is siphoning players from Legion ball. And in many areas, high school coaches operate summer programs for their teams.
“I live outside of Raleigh, and that’s what’s happened here,” Freiling said. “These kids essentially are playing for their high school teams at their high school fields with their high school coaches. American Legion ball in North Carolina has dried up.”
Meanwhile, Legion membership itself is declining, a function of an aging veteran population and a smaller, volunteer military. With World War II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans dying, nearly 1,000 Legion posts that might have sponsored baseball closed between 2000 and 2010. Membership is down from a high of 3.3 million in 1992 to an estimated 1.8 million. Many posts can no longer afford baseball.
“A lot of teams in Legion ball aren’t sponsored by the posts anymore,” Purdy said. “A lot of civic and neighborhood associations have picked up the slack.”
The Northeast Optimists, for example, assumed sponsorship of a team representing the Rhawnhurst post. That team was forced to suspend play this year, McArdle said, when one of its two coaches had a shift change at work and the other developed cancer.
Without the veterans, Legion members insist, a valuable aspect of its program is lost. Feller, the late Cleveland pitcher who was the first Legion alumnus elected to Cooperstown, acknowledged that it not only helped his baseball career but also prepared him for the strains he experienced as a chief petty officer in the World War II Navy.
“I feel I should have given a plaque to the American Legion rather than receiving one from it,” he said when the organization honored him in 1963.
So what is Legion baseball’s future? Will it be reinvigorated by a new generation of veterans? Can it find relevance in an increasingly tech-based world? Will competitive league baseball rebound?
“I don’t know,” Purdy said. “I don’t think Legion ball is going to fade away. But it’s probably never going to be as great as it used to be. And that’s kind of sad.”
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