Providing support for youth baseball benefits youths and communities, and bolsters the future of Major League Baseball itself.
There has been growing concern about baseball and its future for what seems like at least two decades. It is a sport plagued by player lockouts, a slow pace that seems antiquated—even with the new MLB pitch clock—in a culture where constant, face-paced entertainment reigns supreme. The growing popularity of other sports calls into question whether baseball will still be “America’s Pastime” a generation from now.
There are some promising signs that baseball, at least at the major-league level, is experiencing a renaissance. That said, the uptick in baseball viewership and attendance is mostly an indication that fans will support the game in the short term. There is a very real long-term threat that one of the most significant pipelines for baseball fans and players, youth baseball, is running dry.
Little League participation peaked in the 1990s, but since then has has declined by roughly 3% annually. Decline notwithstanding, baseball is far from dead to American youth. In 2020, 3.4 million children ages 6 to 12 played baseball, second only to basketball (4.1 million) among team sports. The true threat to baseball and the egalitarianism it has exhibited since abolishing the color line at the major-league level is a shift in the type of youths who play. The sport is becoming more rarified, evolving into what some call a “country-club sport.” Fewer children join local Little League teams; wealthier families are electing to have their children play on traveling teams instead.
This shift has resulted in fewer kids playing on local teams sponsored by small-town hardware stores. Local baseball fields that hosted countless summer games are now overrun with weeds or built over altogether. Instead, kids from well-to-do families travel hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars claiming roster spots on teams with names— Renegades, Avengers, Playmakers—that are ridiculous rather than intimidating. A generation ago, a twelve-year-old boy with his sights set on the majors likely rode his bike to the local baseball diamond for practice. The beloved movie The Sandlot depicts a time when baseball was central to youths across the country maturing and developing independence. But American society, and baseball with it, has changed since 1993. In 2023, young boys carpool to immaculate fields in far-flung baseball complexes. Players are told the only way to make it to the majors—or even join a high school team—is to join an elite, expensive travel club. If that’s true, it’s a tragedy for the sport, and even more so for local communities.
It’s possible that these changes in baseball are driven by suburban sprawl and shifting preferences within the middle class. Even so, we shouldn’t discount the tremendous value that building and restoring local baseball diamonds, particularly in neighborhoods that include those of low socioeconomic status, bring to youths. One such example in South Bend, Indiana, Foundry Field, is giving children and adults alike the chance to return to the baseball field. Thanks in part to generous donors, people will experience the joy of playing baseball in a local setting once again. Stories such as this should inspire all of us to assess the status of baseball and youth sports in our communities. Playing sports at a local level can change young lives and revitalize our communities immeasurably.