The declining number of African-Americans in the Major Leagues has been a hot topic in recent years. But you can’t say Major League Baseball isn’t doing its part to try and right it.
On Wednesday, the league announced plans to construct the fourth Urban Youth Academy
in Philadelphia, one that will give inner-city kids in the area a chance to play year-round baseball and softball for free while receiving valuable instruction.
MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon has made it his mission to try and provide baseball to kids growing up in environments where playing the game would be difficult, and he’s done so by steering the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and starting four MLB-run Academies.
First, there was one in Compton, Calif. Then, one was announced for South Florida. Earlier this year, Houston’s Academy opened its doors, too. And now, the concept has reached the City of Brotherly Love.
“Why Philadelphia?” Solomon asked rhetorically while announcing the venture along with guests like Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. “Because of the passion of the Phillies, of [team president] Dave Montgomery, of the city. Commissioner [Bud] Selig wanted to reclaim urban America. These Academies are not just to create Major League players, although 50 kids have already signed out of Compton. … The number I’m proud of are 150 kids in college on baseball or softball scholarships. And the really big number is the 2,500 kids who have been through that Academy, that welcomes those kids in the hours after school and before Mom comes home.”
In 1975, 30 percent of players on Major League rosters were of African-American descent. But that percentage has been in the single-digits on Opening Day for six of the last seven years. On Opening Day 2010, 9.1 percent of Major League rosters included African-Americans.
As for the First-Year Player Draft, no more than four players of African-American descent have been taken in the first round each of the last five years.
Many theories try to come up with an explanation for this. Based on several players I’ve talked to, the most prevalent is the fact they choose football and basketball instead of baseball because (1) most of their heroes affiliate with those sports, (2) they’re cheaper and easier to play and (3) they provide a quicker route to the pros — since they don’t have to go through the Minor Leagues.
So, what can be done?
“You just have to constantly pound [baseball] in the inner cities,” newly minted Hall of Famer Andre Dawson told me earlier this season. “Constantly stay in the ears of community leaders, high schools, junior high schools and just keep it in their face. You can only do so much. The facilities have to be available. It takes sponsors and people really stepping forward and giving it their best effort to try to make this thing work in the community. That’s what has to be done. But if you sit back and talk about it and think it’s going to happen, it’s not going to happen.”
MLB hasn’t been doing a lot of sitting.
They got involved with the RBI program — a concept former Major League player and scout John Young developed to keep inner-city kids off the streets, turn their attention to baseball and softball, and use that as a carrot to get them in the classroom — in 1991. Today, nearly 300 RBI leagues are offered throughout the country and in the Caribbean, and nearly 175,000 kids take part.
Then, back in 2006, MLB took that concept a step further with the beginning of these Urban Youth Academies.
As Dawson said, “You can only do so much.” But MLB’s efforts in recent years could go a long way in getting more African-Americans playing the game at the highest level again.
The Philadelphia UYA is another step in that direction.
— Alden Gonzalez (Mike Redano contributed)