For years, the best high school players in the country dedicated their summers to American Legion baseball.
In 2000, there were more than 4,000 Legion baseball teams throughout the country. The rise of showcase baseball teams, single-sport specialization and the decline in youth sports in general have eroded some Legion baseball programs, particularly in metropolitan areas.
Yet in South Dakota and other Great Plains states, Legion baseball remains the predominant option for high school-aged players. This summer, 80 teams have registered in the state-Minnesota (367) and Nebraska (271) boast the most Legion teams in the country-which is on par with last year and continues an uptick during the last decade, while baseball participation has grown 21 percent since 2014 according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
"Our increase has been at the younger level," South Dakota Legion Baseball Chairman Dan Sudbeck, of Dimock, said. "Our 17-and-under (teams) have been where our biggest increase has been and I think that's the case nationwide."
South Dakota uses loyalty and tradition to its advantage in participation numbers. Given Legion baseball was created in Milbank in 1925, many programs have been established for decades and have been intertwined in small-town communities.
In towns with smaller populations, Legion baseball is one of the most consistent forms of activity and entertainment, which lends itself to a greater interest in participation.
"The more we get out into these smaller areas, the more they appreciate it," said Sam Cloud, American Legion national program director. "They're always looking for something to do. When you get a high school with a 300 enrollment, those guys have a great time with the program. It's difficult to get a team together with an enrollment of 7,500 because those kids are spread out and you're battling competition. It's geography more than anything else."
States such as California, Florida, Georgia and Texas have seen the biggest decline in Legion participation, with one of the biggest factors being the growth of travel and showcase teams. There are 75 Legion alums in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but there is an increasing perception that players must play for certain teams to be seen by scouts.
Showcase and travel teams also allow for a lighter schedule for kids and parents. Such teams may travel out of town or out of state almost every weekend of the summer at a greater monetary cost, but there is also a lighter schedule during the week, compared to a 40-game Legion slate.
"More people are getting away from organized league play, because of lifestyle changes and convenience," Cloud said. "... When you're in a league, you want loyalty and commitment that you're going to be there for every game, whether you sit on the bench or not."
Legion teams have been proactive in keeping such showcase teams to a minimum in South Dakota. Written into the state bylaws, Legion teams are limited to playing each other during the week, while they are permitted to play other travel teams in weekend tournaments.
"The easier we make it for travel teams to get games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I think the more traveling teams will show up," Sudbeck said. "... Mitchell doesn't want the best kid on their team going to a traveling team to play every weekend out of state. Traveling teams don't want five of the best players from one team, they want the best player."
Travel teams are built on the best collection of talent in a city and a desire to play with the best, but the top interest in playing a team sport was for players to spend time with friends, according to a study by the Aspen Institute.
A short, helter skelter high school baseball season spills into the Legion season, giving players what amounts to an elongated prep schedule as most teams in the state share rosters and coaches.
"Legion helps extend the season for them," said Mike Gassman, who coached McCook/Miner Post 140 for 19 years. "The high school season can be hectic and miserable. Legion kind of falls into baseball season and kids look forward to that."
If the high school baseball season were to transition from a club sport to a SDHSAA-sanctioned sport, some believe it could potentially impact the popularity of the Legion baseball. Wisconsin has a declining high school summer season, while Iowa prep baseball season wraps up in August, leaving less than 20 Legion teams in the state.
"If they changed the high school season away from a club sport, it might hurt Legion baseball," Mitchell Post 18 head coach Luke Norden said. "... Some of those (Iowa) teams-going into the Central Plains regionals-have played 10-12 Legion games before the playoffs start. We're fortunate in South Dakota with the way we have things set up."