Burlington Recreation and Parks Department’s softball leagues have a strong tradition and continue to provide those seeking fitness an opportunity to play with others in the local community on several of the fields made available at City Park.
The department’s fall leagues kicked off Aug. 18 with 65 teams competing in several league categories. Recreation and Parks director Tony Laws has witnessed the evolution of softball league play since he started working for the department in 1968.
Laws said when he first came to work at the department there were softball leagues for men, women and churches. There were about 40 teams during that period in the late 1960s. The number grew to 150 softball teams during the next two decades.
Laws, who also is a state commissioner for North Carolina on the Amateur Softball Association, said beginning in the early ’90s the number of softball teams began to decline in Burlington, matching a nationwide trend. Fewer churches participated in the department’s leagues and the decline in companies, especially textile companies sponsoring teams, also played a part in the overall decline in the participation of softball.
“This was a textile town and every mill had at least one team,” Laws said. “The bigger mills had multiple men’s and women’s teams.”
How softball is strategically played has changed through the years as well.
Laws said composite softball bats replaced wooden bats. This placed less emphasis on defensive strategy because with composite bats players attempt to hit home runs on every swing.
Laws said the equipment used has outpaced players’ abilities to play the game. The composite bats made with synthetic materials increased ball speed coming off the bat and players sometimes have trouble making plays in the field.
“The defensive part has disappeared,” Laws said. “It’s an offensive game. Now, it’s just ‘see who can knock the ball over the fence.’ ”
Laws said a recent report issued by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers noted that participation in softball has declined nationwide in the past five years by one-third.
“That’s a big drop,” Laws said. “Lots of sports have peaks and valleys and right now softball is in the valley.”
According to Recreation and Parks athletics supervisor Jessica Hicks, the department’s girls’ fast-pitch league remains strong with high participation. Hicks said she believed this was due in part because colleges offer scholarships for girls’ fast-pitch softball, driving demand for girls’ fast-pitch softball leagues.
Hicks and Laws agreed that decline in softball leagues also has been driven by less emphasis on team sports. Hicks said many opt to participate in sports that are individualistic such as running, or extreme sports including rock climbing.
Laws said the Baby Boomer generation helped spur the popularity of softball in the ’70s and ’80s and they are now not as active in the sport. The current generation of youth is more into playing electronic games and staying indoors, he said.
The leagues currently offered by the department include men’s softball, co-ed softball, Friday night church softball and girls’ leagues. The department also offers women’s softball leagues, but there weren’t enough teams to form a league for women in the fall.
Hicks said the women’s softball league will return in the spring. Most league members are from Burlington and Alamance County with a few players coming from Durham, Chapel Hill and Greensboro to participate this fall.
Burlington will serve as host for an Amateur Softball Association (ASA) men’s senior slow-pitch national tournament at City Park during Labor Day weekend.
Laws said Burlington first held a national softball tournament in 1966. There was a break in the city’s being host of national tournaments until 1979, and since then the city has been host to national softball tournaments almost every year.
The department’s fall league will continue through October with softball games played every week. Laws said softball games today are watched mostly by those connected directly to the games, including family members.
“Softball in its heyday was a big spectator sport,” Laws said. “People just came out for the entertainment value.”
Laws said it wasn’t uncommon to see spectators with no connection to the teams come out to watch. Laws said there were really good teams then that people just wanted to see.