Is Little League participation on the wane? And, if so, should we care? Those were two major questions raised by a Wall Street Journal piece from last week documenting the apparent decline of casual sporting leagues in a nation of kids who have either been bewitched by video games or encouraged to specialize in one sport year-round—or both, if the sport in which they specialize is competitive Minecraft. Whether you find the WSJ report convincing and conclusive—and there are good reasons to be skeptical of it—it should raise in your mind an overwhelmingly important point: Little League and other youth sports leagues are terrible, and we should not be sad to see them go.
Citing a study conducted by the National Sporting Goods Association, the Journal reported that while 8.8 million children between the ages of 7 and 17 played baseball in 2000, only 5.3 million children in that age group did the same in 2013. It’s worth noting, though, that the study seems to document declining youth participation in almost all sports, not just baseball. Basketball participation in the same age group and over the same time period dropped from 13.8 million to 10.3 million; soccer participation dropped from 9.2 million to 6.9 million. The only sport highlighted by the Journal with increased participation from 2000 to 2013 is tackle football, proving once again that Americans do not read the newspaper.
The Journal also reported on the declining fortunes of a youth baseball league in Newburgh, New York, a city “on the front lines of the fight for baseball’s future.” Whereas 206 children played Little League in Newburgh in 2009, only 74 signed up to play this year. Extrapolated to the wider world, this purported Little League participation crisis is bad news for Major League Baseball, given that the boy who plays baseball grows up to be the man who spends $149 on a Mark Trumbo jersey.
Is the Newburgh Little League crisis truly indicative of broader Little League trends? Or is the Journal’s piece just a small-sample-size look at the amateur sporting fortunes of an impoverished city in a cold-weather region? And does it matter? Along with Mom and apple pie, Little League baseball symbolizes wholesome Americana. But just as apple pie is fattening and Mom won’t stop nagging you to come visit, neither is Little League an unalloyed good. Little League was founded in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s by a man named Carl Stotz who grew to hate what his creation became. “Originally, I had envisioned baseball for youngsters strictly on the local level without national playoffs and World Series and all that stuff,” Stotz later said, according to Mark Hyman in his book on youth sports, Until It Hurts. Then, in the 1950s, businessmen essentially staged a hostile takeover, forced Stotz out of the league, and proceeded to turn it into the worldwide entity that it is today, with its international World Series and its ESPN affiliation. “The national organization with headquarters here [in Williamsport] began developing into a Frankenstein. I became utterly disgusted,” said Stotz. He died a bitter man.
Stotz found the bigness of Little League to be awful in part because it seemed like an exploitative ploy that used kids’ athletic ambitions to fill adult-sized voids. As the league grew and became more corporate, there was less and less opportunity for kids to enjoy the thrill of low-stakes, good-natured organized competition. In his fascinating paper “ ‘A Diamond Is a Boy’s Best Friend’: The Rise of Little League Baseball, 1939-1964,” University of Chicago historian Michael H. Carriere argues that Little League was a force for normative morality in a postwar America terrified that children would fall prey to sexual perversion, juvenile delinquency, and, presumably, the beatnik menace. For children, Carriere argues, Little League served to reinforce social order; it was “a highly supervised activity that engendered in children a healthy respect for law and order, taught proper gender roles, and, most importantly, brought families together.”
For the postwar corporate man, coaching Little League was a way to manifest the initiative and aggression he was unable to show at work. The league helped compensate for the denatured character of postwar corporate labor while simultaneously preparing boys to enter the workforce and “accept such dispositions as specialization, rationalization, and bureaucratization.” By formalizing unstructured youth sporting play, modeling it on professional leagues, putting adults in charge, and keeping score and maintaining league standings, Little League “began to be seen as simply one stop on the trajectory of young people’s professional lives.” Today you’re signing up for Little League, tomorrow you’re signing up for a lifetime of toil at General Motors.
So why should this bother us? Because youth sports leagues are stressful and regimented at their worst, and even at their best, they promote the idea that organized, performative play is the most valid and important kind of play. The mere fact that adults take such a keen interest in the sporting activities of children invests those activities with an importance that just screwing around in a vacant lot will never have.
That’s a horrible attitude to promote. I played organized youth baseball until I was 14 or so, and the fun moments I remember are vastly outnumbered by the terrible and stressful ones: botching a critical play and feeling horrible about it for a week, failing to make all-star teams because the coaches nominated their own kids, the tension and agita of pretending these games have actual stakes, and the sense that if you don’t perform at your best, you’re letting everybody down.
In contrast, the most fun I had in childhood was with ad hoc games with other kids from my neighborhood: basketball on my driveway until dark, baseball with maybe four other kids in a vacant lot. Spontaneous play is better than organized play. The two can coexist, of course. But spontaneous play allows children to be in charge of their worlds for a while, to set and explore their own rules and boundaries, to exercise their imaginations in addition to their bodies.
So who cares whether youth baseball really is waning in Newburgh? As long as they can play pickup games, the town’s children will be fine.