Jackie Robinson Park is a relatively idyllic multipurpose green space in the middle of Washington Heights, a working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.
There are parks everywhere in Chicago, a product of the post-World War II initiative of the Parks District to green up the city. And although JRP is more well manicured than its neighboring parks and houses newer facilities, what sets it apart—especially in these summer months—are the hordes of black kids playing baseball there.
JRP is home to Jackie Robinson West Little League, a program Joseph Haley started in 1971 when his son, Bill, now the program’s director, asked to join a team after watching the Little League World Series.
It is now a South Chicago institution, and this week it begins play in the Little League World Series as the Illinois state champion, after coming just one win short of a trip last year. The team will stand out for obvious reasons.
Black kids playing baseball? You let some tell it, that’s akin to a Yeti sighting. But on one recent brisk July evening at JRP, there were four diamonds full of black kids either playing or practicing baseball—not to mention parents filling the stands to watch the 10-and-under team win a district game and a couple dozen coaches and volunteers putting in work.
Chicago, as much or perhaps more than any other city in this nation, is inextricably linked to the history of black participation in baseball. It was in this city, right here on the South Side, where Andrew “Rube” Foster pioneered the Negro National League. He and Hall of Fame shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd led the Chicago American Giants. Chicago is the city of Ernie Banks and Andre Dawson. Curtis Granderson is a native son.
Black folks have always played and still play baseball in this city. It is contrary to the incessant narrative of the dwindling number of black Major League Baseball baseball players and fans. That narrative, of course, is supported by hard data. African-Americans made up just 8.2 percent of MLB Opening Day rosters this season, according to Richard Lapchick's diversity report, about half what they held as recently as the late '90s.
Historic data compiled by the SABR Baseball Biography Project shows that in the decades prior to Lapchick's report card, African-American participation had held steady.
Past polling has shown a lack of interest on the fan level as well.
These numbers worry the keepers of the game.
Haley, however, looks out at the scores of precocious kids playing at JRP and could not care less about MLB’s brow-furrowing trend. For the past several years, Chicago has been under a violent siege more acute than its major peer cities. On this day, the recent Fourth of July weekend shooting sprees—82 shootings, 14 of them fatal—was still consuming the community.
“I don’t do this to put people in Major League Baseball,” Haley says flatly. “I don’t know if we have the luxury to be concerned with that.”
And who could argue with him? Still, the dwindling number of African-American players in the majors is of concern to commissioner Bud Selig and MLB brass, and they are taking steps to address it.
Last year, after announcing the creation of a 17-member On-Field Diversity Task Force, Selig released the following statement:
As a social institution, Major League Baseball has an enormous social responsibility to provide equal opportunities for all people, both on and off the field. I am proud of the work we have done thus far with the RBI program and the MLB Urban Youth Academies, but there is more that we must accomplish. We have seen a number of successful efforts with existing MLB task forces, and I believe we have selected the right people to effectively address the many factors associated with diversity in baseball.
Selig clarified the task force's goal to The New York Times: “I don’t want to miss any opportunity here. We want to find out if we’re not doing well, why not, and what we need to do better. We’ll meet as many times as we need to to come to meaningful decisions.”
This won't be easy.
The suggested reasons for the “disappearing black baseball player” are numerous.
• Baseball equipment and field upkeep are more expensive than sports like basketball and football.
• Youth baseball has moved more toward the travel-team model, which can price out lower-income kids, of whom there are higher percentages among African-Americans.
• Showcases for teenage prospects are also expensive, effectively pricing out some potentially future African-American pros (ESPN.com’s Tim Keown likened the travel-team/showcase model to red-lining).
• Baseball is a father-son sport, and according to recent U.S. census figures, about 49 percent of black children grow up in single-mother households.
• Because pitching is such a premium, many baseball rosters are now made up of almost two-thirds pitchers and catchers, two positions where African-Americans are either rare or virtually nonexistent.
• Integration killed the Negro Leagues, which slowly led to the disappearance of organized baseball in black communities.
• The majority of American-born draftees now come from the college ranks, but college baseball programs only offer partial scholarships, perhaps further motivating lower-income black kids to choose the full scholarships of basketball and/or football in this age of specialization.
• Baseball is football and basketball’s (and increasingly soccer’s) ugly cousin in the world of high school sports.
• Toiling in the minor leagues for years is an unattractive option for the elite black athlete (as Jimmy Rollins once told The New York Daily News, “You get drafted, and you go to the jungle.").
• Some say baseball doesn’t effectively market its black stars (a situation that irritates Granderson).
• Baseball is a difficult sport to master.
• Baseball is boring.
We could go on and on.
“Whatever we’re doing now, it ain’t good enough,” says Dmitri Young, who was twice an All-Star in a 13-year major league career that ended in 2008. “We—I mean Major League Baseball and our black communities—need to do more.”
That was Young’s charge as he dodged the California sun on a bench at MLB’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California. Young—aka “Da Meat Hook”—now startlingly trim, is here serving as a coach and mentor for MLB’s Breakthrough Series, a joint venture with USA Baseball.
The MLB event looks to address the rising costs of private baseball showcases (which can cost as much as $500 to enter, plus any travel and lodging costs), by subsidizing its own showcases targeting African-American high school prospects, with the expressed interest of getting them in front of college and pro scouts.
The prospects run through drills and play a couple games—almost like a mini-combine—and get some one-on-one time with former pros like Young and South Central L.A.’s own Eric Davis. They also get a chance to soak in some wisdom from legend Frank Robinson, who, not coincidentally, serves as MLB’s executive vice president of baseball development, with broad oversight over the diversity issue.
This year, the Breakthrough Series was expanded to four cities, with Cincinnati, Brooklyn, New York, and Bradenton, Florida, joining Compton. The Compton series—a subdued event soundtracked by Motown singles that doesn’t resemble anything like, say, an AAU basketball event of a similar vein—featured about 35 kids from all over California and a few from Texas and Arizona. USA Baseball covered all expenses.
About 20 players who participated in past Breakthrough Series were drafted over the past three years. That’s not a sea change, but it can be considered an inroads. Some of the recent draftees—like Carl Crawford’s cousin J.P. or Gary Sheffield’s nephew Justus—might not have been as reliant on the series for exposure. But many others are kids who otherwise might not have had the means to enter the well-scouted-but-expensive Perfect Game and East Coast Pro showcases or the Area Code Games.
The series is an extension of MLB’s two major initiatives: Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and its Urban Youth Academies (UYA).
RBI began in 1989 when one man, John Young—a former first baseman who had a brief career with the Detroit Tigers and grew up in an America where baseball was king—witnessed Southern California’s elite black athletes deserting baseball for basketball and football and tried to halt that trend.
MLB took over the operation in 1991. Although players like Crawford, CC Sabathia and James Loney have passed through RBI on their way to the bigs, MLB maintains that RBI’s core mission is ultimately to give young people from underserved and diverse communities the opportunity to play baseball.
It’s designated $30 million worth of resources to the RBI program, which currently serves more than 220,000 kids in more than 300 programs established in about 200 cities worldwide.
In the 25 years since RBI’s inception, though, the number of black players in MLB has only dwindled.
Rich Souto is the chief operating officer of Harlem RBI. It has a $13 million budget, 80 full-time employees, 250 part-time workers and about 200 volunteers. It maintains a modest but pristine office and field in East Harlem that serves hundreds of kids each summer.
Harlem RBI is not, however, a pro prospect factory.
“RBI hasn’t moved the metrics,” says Souto. “Changing the numbers, in terms of black players in the pros, was and is one aspect of the overall mission of providing inner-city kids the opportunity to play baseball. And you can see the potential for that to happen with the increased focus from the league office.
"But, for us, on the ground floor, the focus is more about serving the community. We try to create and develop that love for the game, and we try to identify the kids with potential and desire to continue and steer them down the proper path. But I think that’s more what MLB is trying to do with academies.”
MLB celebrated the opening of its first stateside Urban Youth Academy in 2006, when it opened the doors to its Compton location at the end of February prior to spring training. Major league teams, beginning with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays, had long before established baseball academies in Latin America and the Caribbean—specifically in the Dominican Republic.
Because these Latin and Caribbean players weren’t subject to the draft like American players, they were cheaper. And with baseball retaining its status as king of all sports in countries like the D.R., the talent pool was deep.
Anyone with eyes can see the dividends that these foreign academies have paid. Just look at the overwhelmingly Latin and Caribbean origin of the league’s All-Stars over the last 15 years. MLB is hoping for similar domestic results.
There are now four UYAs—in Compton, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Houston—with plans for more sites in Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia, Cleveland and South Florida.
“For kids that have the ability and desire, we want the academies to be the place that gives them the tools to keep pursuing a baseball career,” is how Ben Baroody, MLB’s senior director of baseball development and Urban Youth Academies, explains it. UYA has former major and minor league pros—like Dave Frost, Lorenzo Gray and Jimmy Wynn—in both staff and volunteer roles.
“Our goal is to develop major league players,” Baroody says, marking the difference between UYA and RBI’s more community-based mission.
Specifically, UYA is beginning to seek to address the dearth of black pitchers and catchers in the bigs.
"Frank Robinson, [UYA director] Darrell Miller and I have certainly discussed this as a need of the academies to develop 'up the middle' players," Baroody wrote in an email. "In Compton we have specific pitching and catching programming several times a week and encourage all players to attend. At the other academies nothing official is in place, but we have stressed the need on our instructors to get our most promising players pitching, catching and playing short.
"We are far from where we want or need to be, but we recognize the need and have taken steps to further facilitate getting the UYA top athletes on the mound or behind the plate."
Overall, since 2007, Khris Davis (Milwaukee Brewers), Anthony Gose (Toronto Blue Jays), Aaron Hicks (Minnesota Twins), Trayvon Robinson (currently in the Los Angeles Dodgers system) and Jon Singleton (Houston Astros) have made it to the majors. MLB hopes that with more academies and greater collaboration between UYA, RBI and their host-city MLB teams, the numbers will turn around.
While you can’t necessarily view RBI and UYA as a manifestation of MLB altruism, to its credit, MLB’s largesse funds these programs that are seeking to address the structural issues that hinder unfettered participation from, at least, a critical mass of black kids in this country.
But there’s still the more abstract concern that, frankly, baseball has lost its cachet in the black community, especially with Millennials.
“[Major League Baseball] has disconnected from the culture,” admits Jerry Manuel, a former major league player and manager who was appointed to oversee the day-to-day efforts of MLB’s recently formed diversity task force. “And [African-Americans] are not watching the game. We’re not participating as fans. [African-American] kids—they’re doing other things. We’re trying to figure out why.”
Manuel remembers baseball as an integral part of his childhood. His pops would play with some of the Negro League players when they would come barnstorming through Georgia in the Jim Crow South.
“On Sundays you’d go to church, then go watch some baseball and eat some good Southern fried chicken,” he says. “That’s what we did.”
Most baseball men born prior to the 1980s mention the same themes in their origin stories: the ubiquity of the game in its sandlot variation, the influence of iconic black MLB stars like Hank Aaron, Banks, Willie Mays, Robinson, Ozzie Smith and Barry Bonds and, for many, their fathers.
But when talking to young players who have “chosen” to stick with baseball through their teenage years, they all tell similar stories too. Similar in that there’s either always some peculiarity to the story arc or an inability to articulate what pulled them in.
Take Brendon Davis, for example. He participated in the Breakthrough Series at the Compton UYA. He’s the third-ranked third baseman in his class, son of former NFL running back Gary Davis and on his way to college baseball powerhouse Cal State Fullerton. He’s also about 6’5" and lithe.
If you didn’t see him in cleats snagging ground balls in the gap, you’d almost surely expect for him to be on his way to some D-I school as a wide receiver or 2-guard. Why baseball, though?
“I don’t know why I chose baseball, to be honest with you,” he says. “I started on T-ball when I was about five and for a few years I wasn’t very good. I was the worst, stuck out in right field, batting ninth. There was just something about the game, though.”
He says his student body is diverse, but that he was one of just two black kids on the baseball team.
“All the black kids play basketball and football,” he said.
Chauncey Thomas is a promising young prospect in the Jackie Robinson West program. He has theories.
“What’s the most exciting play in baseball? The home run, right? But that doesn’t happen a lot. I haven’t hit a home run since I was 12,” says the 15-year-old Thomas, who—in JRW’s black and yellow with braids down to his shoulders—can’t help but evoke Andrew McCutchen.
“But now think about a dunk, or someone getting crossed over, or how many times you hear that sound of a hard hit in football or watch a long run. There’s just more easy stuff to grab onto and get excited about in the other sports.”
“But,” and here comes the peculiarity, “for some reason my favorite play was always the bunt.”
Austin Alexis was born in New Orleans’ Third Ward and had to flee to Houston with his family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He’s a center fielder/second baseman with enough potential to get invited to Compton’s Breakthrough Series. Alexis says many of his incredulous classmates actually ask him why he even plays baseball.
“I don’t know...hmmm,” he ponders. “I guess I just like it.”
He’s also a slot receiver and says he will likely choose the sport that gives him the best scholarship. So, in that case, it’s not looking good for baseball.
Souto explains that for the bulk of the kids who come through his Harlem RBI program, baseball lags in recognition.
“These kids don’t talk about Andrew McCutchen the way they talk about Kevin Durant,” he says.
This is not something baseball can remedy with subsidies. This needs outreach.
Back in April, Manuel told The New York Times: “You might see me at places where you see [University of Kentucky basketball coach] John Calipari. That’s what we have to do. We’ve got to keep the pulse of the culture and be able to say to that culture, ‘Hey, baseball is an option.’”
Outreach might mean poaching/stealing elite athletes away from what has become the Millennial generation’s glamour sports of basketball and football. Manuel says he attended the Youth Basketball of America tournament in Orlando in early July and was blown away by the talent pool.
And when he’s not a covetous spectator at other sports' national tournaments, he’s traversing the country—mainly the Southeast, for now—looking for grassroots programs, typically run by former players, that can help increase MLB’s reach on the ground level, connecting them with prospects and raw talent.
“We’re getting involved with grassroots efforts other than just RBI and UYA,” he says. “These are programs that, in order to compete, just need a little structure and some funding. So, if we can help lift them up, they’ve already targeted the talent.”
He mentioned former White Sox and Tigers All-Star Chet Lemon’s academy in Central Florida and a program former Expos/Braves star Marquis Grissom is running out of his native Atlanta.
These days, Grissom, a two-time All-Star with the Montreal Expos who caught the last out as an outfielder for Atlanta’s 1995 World Series champs, runs the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association, an academy/travel club of sorts that targets mostly African-American prospects, many with pro potential.
They offer what amounts to scholarships to defray the costs associated with the travel ball they compete in. Since 2006, MGBA has sent almost 150 kids to play college ball, and seven have been drafted.
“We start at eight years old and go all the way to 18 and through college,” Grissom says. “We’re year-round. We give them info, we give them reps. And as you get older, the game gets more mental, so we teach them IQ. There’s so much underdeveloped talent out here waiting for that push, that knowledge, that encouragement.”
Manuel says these are the types of private organizations and talent hubs that MLB will begin aggressively courting.
There’s always the possibility that this might be a fool’s errand for MLB, that the black community, by and large, has moved on. That a wholesale love and reverence for the sport and the league is not merely dormant, but it no longer exists. That a critical mass of folks who feel a personal and communal responsibility to revive a visceral connect to baseball and MLB (non-former players, that is) are far rarer than folks like Jackie Robinson West’s Haley and Harlem RBI’s Souto, who grew up loving the sport but now use it more as a tool to save kids from treacherous streets and give others a recreational outlet.
But there are still zealots like J.R. Gamble, head coach of the eight-and-under and 10-and-under Duke’s Baseball Club based in Queens, New York. He fields an ethnically diverse team that’s unique everywhere they compete because of the six to seven black kids who suit up.
In late June, with the aid of crowd-sourced funds from a GoFundMe campaign that helped supplement the coffers, he took his club to the Youth Nationals in Myrtle Beach, Florida, where he saw, “like two other black kids...out of about 75 teams.”
“I’m doing this because I love the game and I miss that flair that black players brought the game. The swag. The cerebral part of the game when it came to base-stealing and manufacturing runs. So, I just said I’m going to go out and find the few black kids that I know are playing and invest in them and teach them.
“And believe me, I’m going to get my two or three in bigs and then I’ll be done. I’ll have done my part,” he says.
He’s not letting MLB off the hook, though.
“Come on, let’s be real. You got these rosters full of pitchers and catchers, with no brothers. So the league needs to take some of all that money they’re making and build some pitching and catching academies in the hood. Quit playin’.”
Vincent Thomas is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Shadow League. His work has frequently appeared in SLAM, ESPN.com, Fox Sports, NBA.com and various newspapers. Follow him @vincecathomas.