By Tony Hooker
In 1988, there were 30 million adults playing softball in the US, according to an article I found in the Los Angeles Times archives.
Today, the total number, including children over the age of 6, is 7.6 million, per statistica.com.
Fastpitch, on the other hand, has seen even more precipitous declines in numbers. In 1979, Villa Grove hosted a state regional tournament that featured 10 teams. The championship game was played in front of an estimated 1000 fans. In 2020, there are only approximately 12 teams playing fastpitch, statewide.
So why did softball, which was once the most popular participatory sport in America, decline in relevance?
As with everything, the answer is complicated, with no one clear factor being the determinant.
People like to be successful, and truthfully very few are when facing a good fastpitch pitcher. Slow pitch on the other hand, sees people being able to put the ball in play in almost every at bat. This is a generalization of course. There are those who work very hard at their craft and elevate their slow pitch games to high levels, but in general, it takes much more practice and experience before one begins to have success on the fastpitch diamond, and even then, “success” is often a relative term. Our lives just seem a lot busier today than they were 50 years ago, and not many have the time to put in the work needed to succeed.
Softball isn’t an inexpensive sport to play, with bats running from $100 to $350 or more, and good cleats in the $100 range. A quick google search shows that gloves are near the $100 range. Batting helmets will set you back another $60 or more. Throw in the cost of entry fees and travel and meals and it can become quite prohibitive.
Youth sports are the king, these days. Pre-pandemic, travel ball and summer rec sports were playing on most weekends, and parents don’t really feel that they have time to compete on their own teams, especially when you add up all the expenses I mentioned. Very few are willing or able to duplicate that cost for themselves.
Finally, in the words of those who played the game, the number one reason for the decline of men’s fastpitch in the area is a dearth of pitching. Simply put, it takes years of honing one’s craft to be a decent pitcher, and to be a great pitcher might take decades. Today, most of us don’t have the hundreds of hours of practice time that we would need to become proficient, and without good pitching, your team isn’t going to have much success.
Men’s Fastpitch softball was a huge part of my youth, but those days are gone, and probably won’t be coming back. Like the fourth of July at Henson Park and the Pancake Festival of the forties and fifties, it has been relegated to the history books. As always, there will be something that consumes our interest in the future, and I can’t wait to see what it is.