Competition cuts into Legion baseball

By GENE PHELPS
Daily Journal

PETAL – Kirk Presley, the pitcher, and his Tupelo 49ers had to qualify 20 years ago for their berth in the American Legion State Tournament.

Presley, now the 49ers’ coach, simply signed his team up for this year’s four-team postseason event at Petal High School field.

“We always had eight teams in the (state) tournament, plus you had to win your division to qualify,” Presley said.

“Even 10 years ago you had to qualify to make it,” added 49ers assistant McKinley Holland.

This summer 11 teams competed in American Legion baseball in the state. Five of those were Senior programs, the rest were Junior teams.

By contrast, American Legion state director Mark Harrington said, there are more than 60 teams in Louisiana and 80 in Alabama.

So why the decline in American Legion baseball in Mississippi? Harrington and Presley cite a number of reasons, but all of them involved competing for a player’s summer time.

Busy summers
Presley points to the fact that high school teams are playing summer league in June.

Harrington says competing programs in South Mississippi have cut into Legion programs – such as Babe Ruth, Dixie Majors and Dizzy Dean.

Petal High School baseball coach Larry Watkins points to summer league 7-on-7 football leagues and the early start of fall high school football practices.

“Summer just isn’t the same,” he said.

American Legion is also cutting back on its player pool starting in 2015 when college freshmen will no longer be allowed to participate.

“They’re making it more for high school players,” Presley said.

Harrington hopes to convince more high school teams to play Junior Legion in the future. “They would be feeder teams for Senior teams,” he said. “Senior Legion teams pull from a lot of different schools.”

Teams from the Starkville area, Meridian and the Coast are expected to field teams next summer.

Presley wants to see Legion baseball make a comeback in the state.

“McKinley and I were talking about this the other day,” he said. “American Legion baseball is still the purest form of baseball. You’ve got to win state and you’ve got to win a regional to get to the World Series.”

gene.phelps@journalinc.com

  • Kevin Burdine

    I am an assistant coach with the Pontotoc Senior Legion team. I hate to see the demise of American Legion baseball. Presley and Holland are correct– American Legion is still the purest form of baseball. But, we have lost part of what made it so meaningful when Presley and I played against each other. Every game meant something then. Now, we all just try to win an invitational tournament somewhere down the road and then the state tournament. We are being squeezed out by competing leagues, just as they said. I may be alone in this, but I think the only way to keep American Legion baseball alive in our state is to open it up, not limit ourselves even more. I, for one, would like to see 2 year college players eligible for senior legion (after up to two years of college play, whether that be at a two year community college or 4 yr university). And, we still keep the best of the high school players in the system who will want to compete against college level pitching to prepare and prove themselves. Community college coaches get their first year players into legion play now, but I’d like to see American Legion baseball in Mississippi partner up with all Mississippi colleges and high schools to have a superior brand of baseball. The majors has the minors; college ball could have American Legion, plus competitive high schoolers.

  • Kevin Burdine

    Follow up: I realize that other states, who have a large field of Legion teams, may not want to change include two-year college players. But if the economics of the situation means Mississippi will no longer have competitive Senior Legion baseball, we must do something. If we went alone, and decided to allow 2 yr college players into our system, then we would no longer be eligible for post season against other states. But, that also opens up doors for something even bigger in Mississippi. We could have the Mississippi League for college players across the nation… who knows. It would be great baseball… and big money with teams and scouts pouring in from all over trying to find gems among the community college ranks. Just a thought.