American Legion Baseball turns 91 years old this summer. At one point, it was the premier league for baseball players 19 years old and younger.
In the past decade, however, American Legion has lost more than a quarter of its teams nationwide. This summer, Minocqua Post 89 can be added to the list.
Just days before Minocqua was scheduled to open its Great Northern Legion Conference slate, the 89ers canceled the season entirely.
"I've kind of wrestled for a week, maybe more than that, just trying to find kids and get kids to commit Monday, Wednesday and Friday for games," Minocqua manager Mike Wilhelm said. "I only got five or six committals and a bunch of, 'I can be there for some, but I can't be there for this' or 'I can't be there for that.' So it was just one of things where I had to make a decision and it's not a decision I wanted to make, it's not a decision I'm happy with and it's something I think we had to do."
Minocqua has struggled with low numbers in recent years. In 2016, the 89ers did not compete in the regional tournament.
Last season, Minocqua had a deep roster, but typically barely had enough players to field a team each game, particularly in the tournament last year.
"We've struggled to get guys as long as I've been coaching Legion baseball," Wilhelm said. "I've been the head coach for eight years and I've struggled to get guys for eight years. I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't happening for other teams too. I've talked to Rhinelander, Tomahawk and Mosinee - Mosinee is a team that's playing in the state tournament right now and they're struggling to get guys signed up for Legion, too. I end up having to text guys the night before, day of, and really confirm with them and make sure they're coming over and playing."
Players such as Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, Ted Williams and Brooks Robinson played Legion baseball at one time, but now travel and showcase teams have siphoned the majority of the young talent around the country, with the belief that it offers more time in front of scouts and better competition.
Some states have lost 80 percent of its Legion teams in the past decade, while Wisconsin has lost at least 20 percent, according to The Washington Post.
Travel baseball isn't the only threat to Legion in the Northwoods, however, or throughout the country. Family vacations, jobs, other sports and even the decision simply not to play any sports in the summer has carved into the numbers for Legion baseball.
"I think it's different opportunities," Wilhelm said. "They want to spend time with their families, they want to work, they want to do this or that and baseball sometimes takes a back seat. I think all sports take a back seat sometimes."
Perhaps the biggest victims in Minocqua shutting down for the season are the other six squads in the conference, according to Wilhelm.
Chequamegon, Eagle River, Medford, Mosinee, Rhinelander and Tomahawk now have to fill out a schedule thanks to void left by the 89ers.
"That's something that the kids don't really understand. We're hanging six teams out to dry," Wilhelm said. "We scheduled two games apiece with them and we've now backed out of the Rhinelander tournament, which is something we've gone to for as long as I've been coaching. It's something they don't understand. It's something that takes a lot of time putting the schedule together, making the team happen and those kids don't understand that. They're thinking on a day-by-day basis and that's one of the more frustrating parts of it."
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter@NickSabatoLT.