BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — Salem and Beverly might be century-old rivals on the football field, but the neighboring communities are planning to team up on the baseball diamond.
Due to the declining number of teenagers playing baseball, the Beverly and Salem Babe Ruth leagues decided on Monday to join forces starting next summer.
Organizers said the merger is necessary to ensure the survival of the two programs, which date back more than 30 years.
“I think it’s one of those things whose time has come,” Salem Babe Ruth League president Tom Crane said.
The number of players ages 13 to 15 has dropped by about half in the last few years in both organizations, down to about 80 each last summer, organizers said. Beverly had six teams in its 13- to 15-year-old league while Salem had five.
Crane and his counterpart in Beverly, Bill Brewer, attribute the decline to a variety of factors. Kids have many more activities available to them. Young athletes are encouraged to specialize at an early age and play one sport year-round. And the pace of baseball is too slow for some kids in the age of video games.
“There’s just so many things for kids to do and baseball is not high on the priority list for a lot of them,” Brewer said.
Crane said the league has become so small in Salem that teams end up playing against the same teams several times per season, detracting from the excitement of facing different competition.
“Baseball maybe doesn’t have a spot in the hierarchy that it used to,” Crane said. “It becomes somewhat of a downward spiral. You’re playing the same teams, it’s not as much fun, and kids drop out.”
Brewer said the merger between Beverly and Salem could be the start of a trend of communities combining forces to keep their town baseball programs alive. The Peabody and Danvers Babe Ruth programs began scheduling games against each other last year. In hockey, Salem and Swampscott combined their youth programs years ago.
Bill Lowd, the commission of District 15 Little League on the North Shore, said numbers have been down slightly in Little League over the last few years. Programs in Middleton, Topsfield, Boxford and Amesbury began combining their schedules to compensate for having fewer teams.
“We’re adjusting,” Lowd said. “The falloff is not major for us, but Little League is no different than anybody else. There’s so much activity for kids to do other than baseball. It’s the way the times are right now.”
This is not the first time Salem and Beverly have teamed up to maintain a community institution. In 2006, the Beverly and Salem Elks Clubs merged when Salem was facing declining membership.
“You have to change with the times,” Crane said. “For societal reasons, people have busy, hectic lives. You just have to expand the geographical base. It’s still an outlet and an opportunity for people to do the things that they like to do.”
Brewer said details of the Beverly-Salem Babe Ruth merger will be worked out over the winter. Initial plans call for the teams to be made up of all-Salem and all-Beverly players, with games being played in both cities.
“It’s a perfect match,” Brewer said. “It’s going to help kids develop new relationships, new friends. We’re going to be able to maintain a strong program.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.