What happened to American Legion baseball in Western Mass?

  • Northampton Post 28 head coach Chuck Holt coaches Nick Heafey during his at-bat in the first inning against Pittsfield Post 68, Friday, July, 19, 2019 at Spec Pond in Wilbraham. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eli Kayser-Hirsh, left, of Belchertown Post 239, tags out Joseph Klaus, of Aldenville Post 337, as he tries to steal second, Monday, July 1, 2019 at Belchertown High School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carter Matthews, of Belchertown Post 239, pitches to Aldenville Post 337, Monday, July 1, 2019 at Belchertown High School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Patrick Serio, of Northampton Post 28, hits a single against Agawam Post 185, Thursday, June 27, 2019 at Arcanum Field. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 8/14/2019 6:09:48 PM

Baseball has been a staple of the local summer scene for ages. From Little League to the college baseball leagues, evenings in the summer are spent on the diamond.

In recent years, however, there has been a decline in participation at the upper levels of youth baseball.

The American Legion has sponsored a baseball league across the nation since 1925 and has been a home for players during the summer.

Massachusetts is tied with Illinois for the fifth most Legion teams in the country with 137. They trail only Minnesota (366), Nebraska (271), Pennsylvania (253) and Wisconsin (217).

Not long ago, Hampshire County was home to South Hadley Post 260, Amherst Post 148, Belchertown Post 239, Northampton Post 28 and Easthampton Post 224. This summer, only Belchertown and Northampton had teams.

Amherst last fielded a team in 2015. South Hadley’s last team played in 2016. This was the first summer Easthampton did not have a team.

“There’s lots of competition out there not only within baseball,” South Hadley Recreation Director and former Legion District 2 chairman Andy Rodgers said. “Baseball participation, particularly in the summer, has gone down.”

The “competition” refers to a lot of different things.

Rodgers noted the difficulty in getting 18 and 19 year olds to commit to playing a busy and condensed schedule during the summer.

“Sport numbers in general have been down, baseball numbers are down and it was kind of impossible to field enough kids on a yearly basis to make it work,” Rodgers said. “When kids can go play summer soccer or seven-on-seven football or get a job or go to the beach with their friends you run into all sorts of variables there and for our baseball committee it became real hard. They were spending more time begging kids to come to games than actually focusing on baseball.”

District 1 Chairman Dennis St. Pierre has been involved with Legion baseball for two decades.

“At one time we had seven teams in District 1 and slowly but surely the different Legions had trouble fielding a team. We were always short-handed and there were a lot of forfeits for all the teams,” St. Pierre said. “It’s different nowadays. A lot of these kids today they’ve got girlfriends, they’ve got cars, it’s hard. It’s not the way it used to be. At one time it was actually an honor to play Legion baseball.”

District 1 covers Berkshire County and only Pittsfield Post 68 remains. Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Counties now combine for 13 teams.

Belchertown, which was unable to put together a team from 2016 to 2018, returned to the Senior Legion level this year. Post 239 had a roster that included players from Granby and Amherst.

“The last year we had a Senior Legion team was the first year we had a Junior Legion team,” said Craig French, who has been running the Belchertown program since 2013. “We had been kind of looking at the future trying to get the younger kids involved so we could eventually have a pipeline of kids coming up through the program. So through that we kind of kept interest in Legion baseball with the Junior Legion team and then last year we really started reaching out to the surrounding towns around us. We reached out to the coaches and parents and really started recruiting kids to get them into the Legion program.”

More opportunities for kids hurt the Belchertown program.

“There’s just a lot of things pulling on kids these days,” French said. “There’s AAU and all these other leagues these days that pull on kids, but Belchertown particularly it was just a small bubble of kids.”

Both French and Rodgers added that there is sort of a cyclical nature to the change in participation rates when it comes to youth sports, not just baseball.

“The year my oldest son graduated high school there were seven or eight seniors on the baseball team,” French said. “Last year when my middle son graduated there were two so there weren’t a lot of kids to draw from to begin with.”

Rodgers has seen the ebbs and flows in participation from his experience as a recreation director.

“When our football numbers are way up, our soccer numbers are way down,” Rodgers said. “And vice versa.”

The only program in Hampshire County that has consistently put a team on the field has been Northampton Post 28.

“I think partly what it is is the parents and (manager) Mike Noonan and the coaching staff making an environment that kids are really excited about,” Post 28 coach Chuck Holt said. “We’re making it feel like it’s really important and we’re promoting the fact that it’s a really high level of baseball.”

Easthampton didn’t have a problem with the number of players, but rather issues filling the coaching position.

Post 224 didn’t field a team this year because it was unable to find a coach in time after Kevin Wilby left the program.

According to Max Weir, who is working to get Easthampton back on the field in 2020, Post 224 was unable to find a replacement before the registration deadline and that is what kept them out of the league this year.

Weir, an alumnus of Post 224 and volunteer coach at AIC, is confident they will be back on the field next June.

“I’m not worried about getting the guys, the numbers, the quality, anything like that,” Weir said. “I know that will fill itself out.”

The prospect of Easthampton rejoining the scene is a reason for optimism when it comes to the Legion landscape.

“If the Legion as a league can evolve to create an easier system for teams to be a part of a league and create something that feels like it’s really developmental and allows for exposure and gives kids something that is really important, I think that will create a resurgence,” Holt said. “But it’s really hard to say.”


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