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Inside the Chrome Dome (archive March 2007)

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 Where Have All the Baseball Players Gone? Babe Ruth League Struggling

Thirty years ago hundreds of Knightstown residents ventured to Sunset Park nearly every weeknight during the summer months to watch more than a dozen Little League teams and eight or more Pony League teams play baseball. Knightstown’s Optimist Club operated what was one of the most vibrant youth sports programs in this part of the state.

In 1973, Tri, Eastern Hancock and Morton all had Pony League teams. In the coming years, a team was formed that was comprised of Carthage kids. Knightstown teams were called Danner’s, L&W Market, Patton’s IGA and Ernie’s Market. Games were played on the high school fields and at the park in Carthage.

In the summer of 1975, due to insurance-related issues, the games were moved off of the high school field, forcing Knightstown teams to play at Sunset Park. The teams were ready to play baseball, but the field wasn’t ready for them.

The facility was in extremely poor condition. There wasn’t a fence. The field had been used only for softball for a couple of years, and fielding a sharp grounder would have been easier in a gravel pit.

Nonetheless, the coaches and teams managed to get the field ready by taking matters into their own hands. I distinctly remember coaches Bob Hahn and Charles Brown loading a group of players from various teams into pickup trucks and driving to an area farm, where they tore out a few hundred yards of fencing. It was rolled up and transported to the baseball diamond, where it was then installed by a bunch of 13-15 year-olds.

The process of dragging the field and removing hundreds of rocks followed. Additional dirt was trucked in and spread around low-lying areas, new grass was planted, and eventually, the baseball season began. A half-dozen coaches and more than 30 wannabe baseball players – about half of the Knightstown kids – had put their sweat into the preparation of the field.

In the mid-1970’s the Knightstown Pony League consisted of eight to 10 teams and more than 100 players. The league was solvent and produced some top-notch talent that fed into the high school baseball program. The Knightstown High School team won the sectional title in both 1979 and 1981, and every player on both of those teams played in at least one of the Optimist Club Little League or Pony League systems. Most played in both.

Knightstown hasn’t won a baseball sectional title since, and the interest in baseball – now referred to as the Babe Ruth League – has dwindled to almost none. As of Tuesday morning, the number of players registered to participate on Knightstown teams in the Babe Ruth League was two. That’s more than 100 less than 30 years ago, and about five percent of the number who helped install those fence lines in 1975.

Another player from Shirley had indicated plans to play on the Knightstown team, and Tri has estimated its number of players this year at roughly 15. Last year, Knightstown fielded two teams with roughly 23 total players.

Youth sports have always been the feeder system for the high school level, and the 26-year break between sectional titles at the high school is a direct result of dwindling participation in the Babe Ruth Baseball program.

Experts have varying opinions on why there are so few kids interested in playing the sport in that 13-16 age bracket. We are in an era where video game players out-number athletes by about a 3-1 margin. At the same time, kids who are borderline obese also out-number those who fit the weight guidelines by about the same 3-1 margin.

Others say there are hundreds of other things to do besides play baseball, and the sport just doesn’t stand a chance against all of the competition of those video games, skateboarding, the internet and in some cases, a sheer lack of motivation.

Whatever the reasons, the Knightstown Babe Ruth League is trying to save the sport on this level, and they are charging head-on to tackle the problem. They admit the battle will be a long and uphill struggle. Despite the odds, they are taking on the challenge.

“We know we have a lot to overcome,” Knightstown Babe Ruth President Mark Moss said. “We don’t have all of the answers. It’s hard to understand why the interest isn’t what it used to be, but we’re thinking maybe we haven’t utilized all of our resources.”

They are trying to get the word out to the schools. Registration forms are available at Knightstown, Tri and Eastern Hancock. They turned to the Banner for additional publicity. They are trying to get the word out to every corner of this and surrounding communities in an attempt to reach every kid possible. “We think there are plenty of kids out there who will respond and register to play,”

Moss said. “We are also looking for more volunteers to help operate the league. We need concession stand workers, umpires and people to help with the field preparation on a rotating basis.”

Anyone interested in helping the Babe Ruth League in any way, or has a child who wants to play baseball in the league, contact Moss at 345-2570.

The Knightstown Babe Ruth League board of directors includes President Moss, Vice-President Ron Beavers, Treasurer Terrie Sowders, members Bob Oakes, Jeff Haase, Jeremy Howard and Denny Hurst. Moss knows that drumming up enough interest at this stage – just weeks before the season should get underway, is comparable to preparing to play the best team on your schedule on a minute’s notice. But the man who once scored 27 points against New Castle in basketball isn’t backing down from the challenge, and neither is his anyone in his Babe Ruth program.

“Baseball is a character-building, team sport,” said Moss. “We’ve got to get more of these kids involved, and to do that, we’ve got to get the word out. I am confident that there are a lot of kids out there who would play, but they haven’t heard the announcement at school and just don’t know we’re registering players.

“The goal right now is to just get the word out and start signing up kids.”

 

 

 

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