Is American Legion baseball dying in Illinois?
The answer is: It’s surviving.
“I don’t believe we are dying. I believe we have had a few down years,” said John Gosney, who is the 3rd Division’s baseball chairman. “I don’t want to toot my own horn but with strong leadership comes strong programs.
“We’ve been getting the high school coaches on board and having them run the Legion programs. That way the philosophy from the high school comes to the Legion,” he added. “We scratch their back and they scratch ours.”
The American Legion’s Department of Illinois 3rd Division includes Abingdon, Bartonville, Canton, East Moline, Farmington, Galesburg, Kewanee, Jerseyville, Macomb, Milan, Moline, Monmouth, Oneida, Peoria, Rock Island, and Quincy.
Only East Moline, Moline, Oneida, Peoria and Rock Island are fielding teams in 2021. Abingdon and Monmouth didn’t assemble squads due to the pushed back high school season and the fact their players frankly needed the rest.
Across the state, there are only 57 teams, according to the American Legion’s website. There are 23 junior squads. Those born in 2002 or 2003, must play senior ball.
“I think when I first got involved we had about 200 teams in Illinois and in 2019 I had 137 total,” said Don Wallace, who resides in Belleville and is in his ninth year as the Department of Illinois Baseball Chairman for American Legion Baseball. “We’ve lost some teams because of COVID.
“I think part of the problem is some of the high school coaches in the state of Illinois are working for these travel teams and they’re getting paid in the summer and they tell the kids they can’t play Legion ball and play for the high school team also,” Wallace added. “They can’t do that until after they graduate.
“There is more competition for players in high school now. They do other sports and in some areas there are less players playing baseball, especially in the Chicago area. Lacrosse has become popular.”
In the summer of 2017, Post 285 announced its baseball program was ending after 62 years, and former Galesburg coach Steve Cheesman also believes travel baseball programs have played a part in the reduction of Legion baseball players and teams.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” said Cheesman, who guided Post 285 for 12 seasons — 2015 was his final season — and went 422-162 overall in that time span. “There are kids doing more things. It takes certainly their time, attention and commitment away from adding one more thing to their plate. I think the amount of time that is asked of them in other sports whether they are playing basketball, football or whatever sport it is has become a year round commitment.
“The allure of travel baseball and that has been good and bad. There have been some outstanding travel organizations but there’s also been some real duds,” Cheesman added. “It really isn’t allure because often times I feel like folks feel like that’s going to get a college scholarship for that particular player and most of the time I don’t think that occurs. I think all of those things have played a role in Legion baseball struggling.”
And how’s Cheesman feel about Galesburg not having a Legion team?
“For 62 years it was an important staple not only in athletics but in the entertainment part of our community. So many people followed our team and those kids,” he said. “It was something they looked forward to either going out and seeing in person in the summertime or reading about in the newspaper or hearing about on the radio or by word of mouth. It was a central focal point in this community in general for obviously way over a half of century.
“Not having a team left a void in so many peoples lives and that is a tough thing and certainly a sad thing.”
Peyton Isaacson, a 2015 Galesburg High School grad, attended Coastal Carolina University — where he was a member of the Chanticleers’ 2016 College World Series championship team, as a freshman and sophomore. Isaacson transferred to Saint Leo University, an NCAA Division II school in Saint Leo, Florida, and he earned All-Sunshine State Conference second-team honors for his role as a catcher, first baseman and pitcher.
Isaacson, 24, is in his third season of professional baseball and he suits up for the Windy City ThunderBolts, who are members of the Frontier League. Isaacson once took the diamond for Post 285 but he only did so during the week, as he hit the travel ball circuit on the weekends. Isaacson did so for a simple reason — he wanted exposure.
“It got to the point where if you had the talent and you wanted to be seen you had to play travel baseball to go to the next level above high school. People stopped coming to American Legion games for recruiting and draft purposes,” Isaacson said. “In my high school career, I played both. I would play Legion games Monday through Thursday and on the weekend I would play in Kansas City or some place like that. That’s what you had to do to get the scholarships and the notoriety. These coaches are going to see at least 100 guys at this certain complex or showcase.
“It sucks because you don’t really know the guys you are playing with when you play travel ball and there is no tradition. There are a lot of towns that had tradition,” Isaacson added. “Maybe guys aren’t the cream of the crop but guys could go somewhere and have a great career. Now kids are getting pushed away from Legion ball and kids lose the love of the game because they sit the bench on a travel team.
“I’m not against travel baseball or anything like that but that’s why Legion Baseball went downhill because all of the kids that would have been playing had to revert to another option to have their talents be seen.”
Jimmy Isaacson, Peyton’s grandpa, began his coaching career as an assistant coach for Post 285 in 1964. A year later, he took over the program and led the team until 1972. Jimmy took the reins back in 1976 and coached Post 285 through the summer of 1988. Jimmy led Post 285 to nine appearances at the state tournament, including a state championship in 1971.
Jami Isaacson, Peyton’s pops, played Legion ball from 1982 through 1986 and serves as Knox College’s baseball coach. He knows the impact travel baseball plays.
“There is huge exposure playing travel ball and that exposure is becoming greater and greater even with the lower level travel ball teams. They are getting college coaches to take a peak if they’re at the right tournament,” said Jami Isaacson, who for 27 years was affiliated with Post 285 either as a batboy, player or as an assistant coach. “On a Tuesday or Wednesday that is no different than a Legion game but if that lower level travel ball team is at a tournament in Nashville, South Bend, or Madison, Wisconsin, they’ll get seen.”
In other words, why would coaches attend a Legion game to see roughly 40 players play when they can see at the least 100 somewhere else?
College coaches have tight budgets and have to stretch their bucks as far as they can, so that’s why they attend showcases and tournaments.
Isaacson predicts a handful of young men in Galesburg should be racking up travel ball miles.
“We live in a huge baseball community and there are four, five, six kids that need to go play travel ball,” Isaacson said.
Gosney admits the best players likely aren’t playing Legion baseball.
“I would be a fool to sit here and tell you we aren’t losing kids to travel baseball,” he said. “You have to know your place in the community. We know we can’t draw all the big names but at the end of the day we have some every competitive baseball.
“We’re actually seeing some kids come back to us from travel ball. They may play travel ball their freshman or sophomore years and then they come back to Legion baseball,” Gosney added. “At the end of the day, we want the young men of the communities to benefit. If we are competitive that is icing on the cake but we are here to mold them all into productive members of society. We want them to be upstanding citizens.
“The more people we can get into Legion baseball the better. Of course, we want to be competitive but the more boys we can help the better.”