Skip to content

How America Sold Out Little League Baseball

From America Magazine

Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

TDE note: This is a very good piece, with a few blemishes. The writer, for instance, characterizes the destruction of little league baseball as a symptom of "late-stage capitalism," which is a Marxist concept, but hey, it's America magazine so I guess we shouldn't be surprised. He also says baseball is the most expensive of the team sports. That's simply wrong: try hockey. I also have a hard time believing that baseball is more expensive than football. He also doesn't seem to be aware that "Little League" is a trademarked organization and many community youth baseball organizations don't use it, which is a quibble on my part, but it seems he at least ought to be aware of it.

It is impossible to ignore the bigger picture. The youth version of baseball, born out of folk games played on village greens and codified in New York City around 1850, has been fundamentally transformed by private clubs. Baseball, and its sister sport, softball, increasingly mirror the growing inequality in American life, dying in cities and booming in the suburbs. Baseball is also the major sport most likely to shrivel in our lifetimes, simply because it is not loved by a majority of American youth the way it used to be.

To be sure, baseball is still an immensely popular game for American children. In 2020,3.4 million children ages 6 to 12 played baseball, second only to basketball (4.1 million) among team sports. But the percentage of American children ages 6 to 12 who play baseballhas declined to 12.2 percent in 2020 from 16.5 percent in 2008.

Basketball, soccer and other team sports have also been privatized—but none so aggressively as baseball, the most expensive of the team sports. And baseball seems to have a higher burnout rate, as evidenced by decreased participation as children grow older: Among children ages 13 to 17, baseball participation dropped off by more than 16 percent in 2020 from the previous year to 1.8 million, while basketball slightly gained participants, growing 2.5 percent to 3.6 million.

The result: In the United States, baseball is becoming a mostly white country-club sport for upper-class families to consume, like a snorkeling vacation or a round of golf. “The way it’s going, all pro players are going to be rich, white kids from the suburbs, or [they will be] Dominican or Venezuelan,” one major league front office analyst told me. Major League Baseball has been aware of the problem for a long time. In 1989, it founded Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or R.B.I., which has had mixed success, and suffers from its top-down organizational structure and tends to be heavy on photo ops.

* * *

There is so much money in private youth sports companies that former Major League professionals are now investing in clubs instead of looking for jobs in professional baseball. In 2001, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken led the way by founding Ripken Baseball, which organizes pay-to-play tournaments all over the country.

In January, at the annual American Baseball Coaching Conference in Chicago, I interviewed Brad Clement, chief executive officer of Perfect Game, one of the most prominent private tournament organizers in the country. “What we offer is a premium service for the elite,” he told me. Mr. Clement was a school administrator and volunteer baseball coach in the 1990s. He even took a team to the Little League World Series before he joined Perfect Game. “We think that we can coexist with recreational baseball providers,” he told me. “We think you can have both.”

The problem with that argument is that baseball falls apart when the best players are siphoned off. A good example is pitching—youth baseball relies heavily on the skill of its pitchers. Without strike-throwers or fielders to back them up, baseball is absurdist slow-motion theater starring one pitcher hurling pebbles to the backstop. The rise of privatized sports has drawn the best pitchers away from volunteer-based leagues, raising the likelihood that a local recreational team lacks the skills needed for a decent game, driving average players to find other sports or to quit. Or, if they can afford it, to seek out private clubs.

Read more at America Magazine