By Phil Anastasia
When Joe Barth created the Brooklawn American Legion baseball program in 1952, he was ahead of his time.
Sixty-two years later, Brooklawn still sets the standard for independent sports programs.
It's pretty remarkable that all these years later, there still isn't anything quite like Brooklawn baseball -- in terms of player commitment, strength and length of schedule, coaching continuity and consistent success at the national level.
Barth, who died Saturday night at the age of 92, anticipated the trend in youth sports by about 40 years. He saw how "out of season" competition would become more important in terms of player development and the college recruiting process than school or in-town competition.
All these years later, there are countless programs in multiple sports that follow the Brooklawn model with players from various towns and schools, all-year commitment, tons of games, competition outside of South Jersey.
All those AAU basketball and baseball programs, all those ASA softball programs, all those elite club soccer teams, all those high-powered lacrosse and field hockey and swimming programs -- there really wasn't anything like that when Barth founded the Brooklawn program on a little slice of sandlot down the street from his house on 6th Street in the tiny Camden County community.
And there wasn't for years and years.
It's only in the last 10, 15, 20 years that there's been an explosion of all these programs outside the "traditional" path of youth sports -- which used to follow a well-worn route from town teams to travel teams, from middle school to high school to, for some athletes, college.
While there have been "travel" programs for years, the rapid growth of independent programs that enlist athletes for year-round training and take to the road for tournaments and showcases is a fairly new phenomenom.
Especially when you consider that Brooklawn baseball has been doing it since the 1950s.
The thing about Brooklawn is that because Barth and his son Dennis, now the head coach at Rutgers Camden, maintained control of the program there has been a consistency in approach, coaching, administration and competitiveness that doesn't exist with other programs.
There has been a consistency in success, too. Brooklawn has won 27 state titles, 15 regional titles and three American Legion World Series titles, the last in August.
And that's led to another thing that separates Brooklawn from other independent youth programs.
Think of all those AAU basketball and baseball programs as well as ASA softball and club soccer squads. Think of how many of those teams regularly play games with alumni in the stands and in front of flocks of faithful fans.
Still, there are a lot of similarities between Brooklawn and other programs that have arisen in other sports -- in the focus on commitment and training; the pursuit of high-level competition; the day-in and day-out immersion in the sport that tends to leave little time for other interests (in the summer, anyway).
Brooklawn baseball is not for everybody.
But Joe Barth knew back in the 1950s that an elite program such as that was for some athletes and their families.
He was ahead of his time when he created it.
As he's laid to rest at the age of 92, it's worth noting that, in a lot of ways, he's still out there by himself.
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