Times changing for SD amateur baseballMITCHELL, S.D. — Seventy-eight-year-old Darleen Cuppy has stacks of scorebooks filled with amateur baseball results.
By: Luke Hagen, Forum Communications Co.
MITCHELL, S.D. — Seventy-eight-year-old Darleen Cuppy has stacks of scorebooks filled with amateur baseball results.
The Wessington Springs resident said she’s a dedicated Owls fan who has been going to the town’s baseball games since the mid-1960s, a time when amateur baseball was “much different than it is today,” she said.
“It used to be the center of entertainment in the summer,” Cuppy said. “It was better attendance and we had more players out. It seems like the last few years, the managers have had so much stress just hoping enough guys would show up to play.”
For the first time in more than 20 years, Wessington Springs will not field an amateur baseball team this summer. The town is one of many in the past 50 years that has lost its summer baseball team.
According to information from the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Association, the number of amateur baseball teams in the state has been cut by more than half since 1962.
SDABA President Dale Weber, of Salem, said he’s aware of the declining number of teams in the past 50 years, but he’s proud that numbers have held “fairly stable at around 75 teams” over the past 10 years.
“This is something we talk about at every meeting,” said Weber, who’s been the president of the association since 1988. “We’re discussing things we can do to enhance amateur baseball in South Dakota and what we can do to get teams to join.”
This year, Weber said there will be about 75 teams registered, but numbers won’t become official until June 1 when league applications are due. But with more teams dropping than forming across the state, the number could be below 75 for the first time in the past 50 years.
Nathan Hainy, a former player-manager for Wessington Springs, said the main reason there won’t be a town team in Wessington Springs this summer is because there simply are not enough players.
Hainy is playing for the Miller/Wessington/Wolsey amateur team this summer, while four other former Wessington Springs players are playing for the Mitchell Mad Dogs.
Players, coaches and officials say other recreational activities, finances and declining populations in rural areas, among other things, have factored into the declining number of amateur baseball teams since the 1960s.
“I think it boils down to priorities, and it seems like baseball isn’t that high on the priority list,” Hainy said. “Most of it is just the time, taking time away from family and work.”
Cuppy, whose late husband, Howard, was the reason she started attending baseball games regularly, said she was extremely disappointed when she heard the Owls wouldn’t field a team this summer.
“I guess in small towns, it’s hard to get people dedicated,” she said. “It’s just too bad.”
‘Was the thing to do’
According to “75 Years of Championship: South Dakota State Amateur Baseball Tournament Memories,” compiled by George Kiner, the state reached its peak interest in baseball in the late 1940s after World War II. Back then, there were 48 amateur leagues and 300 teams.
In 1962, there were 154 teams registered in the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Association, which included up to 15 American Indian teams at times, according to Kiner’s book. The state didn’t drop below 100 teams on a regular basis until 1968, when 90 teams were registered.
Weber — who played amateur baseball from 1956 to 1976 with stints in Delmont, Mount Vernon and Stickney — said he remembers when it seemed every small town had a team. Weber helped start the Mount Vernon team in the late 1960s and said “attendance was really good back then.”
“Everyone turned off the tractor and went to town to watch or play,” Weber said.
Kevin Leighton, the state’s all-time amateur baseball home run hitter, started playing in 1974 when he was 19 years old. Back then, he said summer baseball “was the thing to do.”
Leighton, a Madison resident, played amateur baseball for 34 years and has 501 career home runs. Last year, he was inducted in the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, which is located in Lake Norden.
“It seemed like every little town had a team,” said Leighton, who retired after the 2009 season when he helped Canova win the Class B state amateur championship. “It was also pretty easy to get a couple hundred people to a game, too.”
In 1982, the state celebrated the 50th anniversary of the state amateur baseball tournament. That year, the tournament was held in Mitchell and hosted 34 teams to crown one state champion, whereas today’s tournaments have moved to a two-class format, crowning Class A and B champions. Included in the 1982 state tournament were Mobridge, Claremont and Selby, all towns which have had their amateur teams collapse since. In the 1960s, Mobridge had three teams.
After 1967, the SDABA had 15 straight years when it had fewer than 100 registered teams, before an unusual spike came in 1983 when 111 teams registered. In 1984, 107 teams were registered, but there haven’t been more than 92 teams statewide since. In the 1980s, the state had an average of about 90 teams per year. The average number of teams dropped to about 80 per year in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Sunshine League is comprised of teams in the Mitchell area and has eight teams this summer, which is down from 10 last year. Geddes, Mount Vernon and the Parkston Bullheads will not field teams, while Alexandria bucked the trend and formed a new squad.
The Bullheads, who started a 38-and-older team last year, will not play this year because they couldn’t get enough players to commit. One player who was on the team last year was Bill Sudbeck, who started playing amateur baseball in 1975. He said he’s not only noticing fewer teams, but also lighter attendance at games.
“Back when I first started playing, you’d probably see at least 100 people at a Sunday game,” Sudbeck said. “Now you’re looking at about half, if that. You just don’t see the people come out and watch the games.”
Last year, there were 10 leagues and 75 teams registered with the SDABA.
Frank Cutler, who started playing amateur baseball when he was 19, moved to Platte in the fall of 1989 and joined the town’s amateur baseball team the next summer. He’s been playing with Platte, a Sunshine League team, ever since.
“Everybody just played and there were a lot more people back then,” he said. “Baseball was the summer activity for a long time.”
On this year’s Fourth of July, Cutler and the Platte Killer Tomatoes won’t have their annual game against Geddes with post-game fireworks, because Geddes’ team has folded. Cutler said the game has been played on and off since the early 1980s and the fireworks after the game became an annual tradition in 1994. The game usually drew season-best crowds for both teams, averaging about 1,000 people per year.
When asked why he thought amateur teams have been declining in the state over the past 50 years, the first thing Cutler said is there’s just too many other things for people to do.
“Computer, TV, recreational things you can do at the lakes and rivers … all factor into why young adults don’t want to stay with the sport,” said Cutler, whose team plays the Parkston Mudcats instead of Geddes on July 4 and will have post-game fireworks.
Leighton said he’s noticed more people are joining slow-pitch softball leagues today.
“That’s not as time-consuming,” he said. “You can get a couple slow-pitch games done in two hours and be back home with your family. When I was playing, in the Cornbelt you played three nights a week. In slow-pitch, you just don’t have to be as dedicated.”
Another key contributor to the decline of amateur baseball teams is the drop in the rural population.
Of the 21 Mitchell-area towns that had amateur baseball teams last year, 18 saw their population drop from 2000 to 2010. Chamberlain and Mitchell each saw a population increase of less than 5 percent, while Plankinton’s population increased about 17 percent.
SDABA secretary Herb Sundall, of Kennebec, listed the decline of population in small towns as the top reason on his list as to why amateur teams have dwindled. He said while the state’s population hasn’t dropped significantly in the past decade, people are moving to Sioux Falls and are either playing slow-pitch softball or don’t have the time to play amateur baseball.
“Fifty years ago, the thing to do on a Sunday afternoon was to go to a baseball game, because there was one in every other town,” Sundall said.
Leighton said finances also have hurt amateur baseball over the years.
Besides costs for umpires and travel throughout the summer, Sundall said each team pays $50 annually to register with the SDABA and purchases $200 in raffle tickets to sell for $400. The team keeps profits from the raffle sales to use on equipment, umpire fees or other costs. At the end of the state tournament each year, the SDABA gives away a boat, golf cart or ATV to someone who’s purchased a raffle ticket.
Additionally, each league, such as the Sunshine or the Cornbelt, usually charges its own membership fee to each team, which costs about $25, Sundall estimated.
Sundall, though, is hesitant to believe costs are a major factor in the decline of amateur baseball teams.
“I won’t say (cost) isn’t a factor, but most of those teams spend more than $50 on beer,” he said, referring to the state’s registration dues.
‘Feeder programs’ are the future
Weber said the key to keeping amateur baseball strong in South Dakota is to keep the “feeder programs” strong. He said back when baseball was at its peak in the state, each town had pee-wee, midget, teener, VFW and Legion programs.
“Players moved up the ranks and eventually played amateur baseball in every small town,” said Weber, who was inducted in the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall Of Fame in 2004. “But rural population back then was tenfold was it is now, though.”
Eric Denning, who has played on Mount Vernon’s team for the past 20 years consecutively, said he hopes the town will have an amateur team again in the near future. Mount Vernon has high school and teener programs and will have its first Legion team in more than 10 years this summer. Mount Vernon also has a youth program, where players move up through the rookies, minors and majors before playing teener baseball.
The “feeder programs” could help rebuild amateur baseball in Mount Vernon, he said.
“I think we have a good nucleus of younger kids that would like to stay around the game,” Denning said. “Us having an amateur team depends a lot on whether or not those kids stick around and come play with us.”
Hainy also said he’s optimistic Wessington Springs will have amateur baseball again in the future, because some younger players decided to play Legion baseball instead of amateur baseball this summer. He hopes those players will join the amateur team in the future.
Weber thinks it may become commonplace for teams to go on hiatus for a season or two, but then eventually rebuild. He said that’s the main reason why the association’s numbers have leveled off around 75 teams over the past decade.
“Not everything is doom and gloom with amateur baseball,” Weber said. “The roof isn’t caving in.”
Hagen is a sports reporter for The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.